Havel: solidarity with dissidents

By Stefan Nicola


Washington, DC, May. 25 (UPI) -- When it comes to urging autocratic countries such as China to adhere to human rights, strong embargoes are the way to go, a European political and cultural leader said Tuesday.

"It makes me very uneasy that democratic countries -- without having any real evidence of a change in China's governing policies -- are even thinking about lifting the embargo on weapons to that country," said Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia, which later broke away from Slovakia to form the Czech Republic.

In his speech at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the playwright turned dissident turned political leader criticized the poor human rights record of nations such as China, Belarus, North Korea, Cuba and Burma, and urged democratic governments around the world to openly support political dissidents in these countries.

Havel, an outspoken champion of human rights, is one of Europe's most popular political and cultural figures. The 68-year-old leader, some say, is the European Nelson Mandela. He published his first play at the age of 24, and spent five years in prison for political dissent in the former Czechoslovakia -- only to rise to its presidency in 1989 after sparking the peaceful anti-communism movement that was later termed the "Velvet Revolution." As a president, he promoted reconciliation with Germany, and lobbied for the Czech Republic's entry into NATO and the European Union.

And the political scene in Eastern Europe continues to change. Pro-democracy movements like the one that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine sparked similar movements in Georgia and in Belarus, Havel said. The CIA World Fact book terms Belarus, a former Soviet republic sitting just north of Ukraine, a "dictatorship." "The Byelorussian critics of (president Aleksandr) Lukashenko's rule deserve both moral and material support," Havel said.

Vitali Silitski, a human rights activist from Belarus, said to look at Havel's life is a "source of inspiration," and that it fuels the ongoing dissidence movements that rest on the unwillingness to accept "that our condition is forever," Silitski said.

"I think that perhaps now we live in a time of a second wave of revolutions against this type of post-communism like in the Ukraine," Havel said, adding that "Mafia-style dictatorships" such as in Belarus are experiencing long-overdue challenges from within.

Another threat to human rights is the growing nationalism in the Balkans, Havel said.

"You can see in the Balkans how often people who have lost the communist flag...they immediately had in their hands the national flag," Havel said, adding that sometimes, national interests are misused to establish new nationalistic dictatorships that are "against basic human and civic rights."

When it comes to the conflict in the Balkans, Havel said, "the United States had in the past years a bigger courage to be engaged there then Europe."

But a peaceful solution might not always be possible to turn a dictatorship into a democracy, Havel said.

"We, the Czechs, have our very special experience called Munich," Havel said, referring to the agreement made by France, England and Italy in the German city in 1938 to hand Hitler large parts of Czechoslovakia. "It was a time when our democratic friends, our partners [wouldn't] help us against a very brutal dictatorship because they preferred the peace."

"If you see suffering, unfortunately, sometimes it is necessary to do something," Havel said. "I am very glad that the regime of Saddam Hussein doesn't exist anymore."

Harry Wu, an exile Chinese who spent 19 years of his life in prison for criticizing the communist regime, said Havel not only belongs to Europe, but also to China.

"We Chinese read your book," Wu said, holding up a Chinese version of one of Havel's plays. "The people pay their own price to publish the book -- if they circulate it, they go to jail. But they keep doing it."