Vaclav Havel, Part III: Helsinki and the Charter 77 Declaration
On the morning of January 6, 1977, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the StB (secret police) surrounded and swarmed a car driven by the actor Pavel Landosky (if you’ve seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he plays the farmer with the pig who befriends Tomas and Tereza). In the car with Landosky were Ludvik Vaculik and Vaclav Havel, but to the secret police the people were the least important targets that day. They could be dealt with later and were – literally – tossed aside.
What concerned the secret police was a document in the car written by a group of dissidents and signed by 243 very brave people. You can see the document here. It was the declaration of a group identifying itself as Charter 77. The occupants of the car had been trying to deliver the declaration to the Federal Assembly; the secret police knew all about the group’s plans and were lying in wait. But what the police did not know was that the delivery of the declaration to the Federal Assembly was a sideshow; another copy already had been smuggled out of the country, and was to be published the next day in four leading daily European newspapers, from which it would inevitably make its way back into Czechoslovakia.
Two seemingly contradictory things about the regime’s response to the Charter 77 declaration are impressive: its severity, and its leniency. The severity of its response is remarkable because on its face, the declaration could hardly have been less revolutionary or more innocuous. Reading it today makes you wonder if you are reading the correct document – this caused all that fuss? The leniency of the regime’s response is remarkable because its clear preference would have been to kill the group’s leaders, or at least crush them, and it was quite capable of doing it. And yet, for perhaps the first time, the regime felt constrained in its response to domestic dissent by both the weight of world opinion and the logic of its own decisions.
The regime felt constrained because the Charter had framed its declaration, in its very first sentence, not as a complaint but as a celebration of Czechoslovakia’s adoption of the 1975 Helsinki Accords – formally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — into its domestic law. The declaration then stated that the basic human rights protected by the Covenant were routinely violated in Czechoslovakia (listing several examples), and that, in the future, the Charter group and other like-minded citizens should and would accept responsibility for fulfilling the aims of the Covenant and Czechoslovak law by “drawing attention” to violations of basic human rights.
The Helsinki Accords were the product of an intense and long negotiation process, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), involving all of the independent countries of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union. The purpose of the Conference in the eyes of the United States and its West European allies was primarily security – it hoped to get the Soviets to recognize permanent and inviolable borders between East and West, particularly in divided Germany; and the Soviets wanted the borders redrawn by Stalin after World War II recognized as well. The primary purpose of the conference in the eyes of the Soviets and their East European allies was cooperation – they wanted to secure badly needed trade and investment for their teetering economies. But the Accords also included the recognition of transnational individual civil and political rights, the positive obligation of governments to protect those rights, and the obligation of other states to monitor each state’s compliance with that obligation. And, because recognition of those rights was included in the Accords, compliance with that obligation was tied to badly needed trade and investment.
The recognition of transnational civil and political rights was included primarily at the insistence of West European countries. In his excellent analysis of the importance of the Helsinki Accords in the development of international human rights law and advocacy, The Helsinki Effect, Daniel C. Thomas notes that the Soviets and the United States were equally impatient with the European countries insistence on including a transnational ‘human rights’ agenda – President Nixon went so far as to scold his European partners that “We would not welcome the intervention of other countries in our domestic affairs and we cannot expect them to be cooperative when we seek to intervene directly in theirs.” And, as you can learn by watching the proceedings of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s conference Helsinki 1975 and the Transformation of Europe, Henry Kissinger and Leonid Brezhnev privately agreed that the human rights provisions of the Accords were meaningless and that nothing would change in practice. East German leader Erich Honecker reassured advisors worried about the adoption of human rights principles that “there will always be the Stasi.” In other words, the major players in the adoption of the Accords regarded the human rights provisions cynically and as an after-thought.
Dissidents in Eastern Europe, however, did not. A small group of dissidents in the Soviet Union started the first Helsinki monitor organization, claiming the privilege of monitoring whether the Soviet Union was meeting its Helsinki obligations domestically. In Czechoslovakia, concurrently, Vaclav Havel was organizing a group of dissidents who had decided to risk all by advocating for basic human rights. Three members of that group in particular — Zdenek Mlynar, Jiri Hajek, and Ladislav Hedjanek — seem to have developed the strategy of tying their advocacy directly to the Czechoslovak regime’s adoption of the Helsinki Accords into domestic law. The group called itself Charter 77, and its declaration expressly invoked both the human rights obligations the regime had agreed to as an afterthought, and the right of citizens themselves to monitor compliance with those obligations and report their findings to the world at large.
Framing Charter 77 as a supportive response to Czechoslovakia’s adoption of the Helsinki Accords was both tactical and substantive. Tactically, it was a masterstroke. The regime found itself practically check-mated before the game had begun, because it had already agreed to everything Charter 77 demanded. Western European governments, and human rights advocates, could and did insist that Eastern European governments meet their obligations under the Accords – or, if they were forswearing the Accords, the West could do the same and cut off trade and border recognition. And, since groups like Charter 77 were only helping to fulfill those obligations, and were very much in the Western eye, they could not be easily destroyed.
The Charter’s model of dissidence – using international human rights law as a lever against domestic repression – quickly spread across Eastern Europe and the world. In addition, the Charter’s insistence on a role for private citizens in monitoring respect for human rights – what Havel called civil society – helped create a model so ubiquitous today that it is hard to believe it was once an innovation: today we call such organizations NGOs. In direct response to Charter 77 and other similar groups in the East, civil initiatives such as Helsinki Watch – later Human Rights Watch – developed in the West. And as we’ll see, those initiatives eventually played an important role in bringing down the regimes of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it was the work of such initiatives, that simply took cynical governments at their word and insisted on respect for human rights, that created the practice of transnational human rights law and advocacy. That legacy obviously continues to reverberate in the world today.
A long, dark road lay ahead for the declaration’s signatories. All were arrested and repeatedly interrogated; many were imprisoned, beaten, harassed and placed under constant surveillance. Vaclav Havel spent almost five of the next seven years in prison. One of the three intial spokespeople for the group — philosopher Jan Patocka — would be dead at the hands of the secret police within a few weeks. But more on that in future installments.