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Vaclav Havel, Part III: Helsinki and the Charter 77 Declaration

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3 Responses

  1. Mark,

    If my notes serve me correctly, I think we should distinguish more clearly between the legal effect of the Helsinki Accords (the ‘Final Act’ of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe [CSCE], after 1995, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe [OSCE]) and the UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The latter Covenants were signed (7 October 1968) and ratified (23 December 1975)[1] by Czechoslovakia, entering into domestic force on 23 March 1976 following constitutional ratification by the Federal Assembly of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in November of 1975. While Article VII of the Final Act of the CSCE provided a timely regional (and more specifically, Czechoslovak) re-affirmation of “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms,” especially in the light of the participation of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the Accords were non-binding or lacking the legal force of a treaty (or covenant), and thus it is rightly said they simply provide a “solemn confirmation” of the need for “consistent observance and pursuance” of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the two UN Covenants. Nonetheless, as Henry J. Steiner and Philip Alston point out, the Accords “clearly played an important role in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, in legitimating human rights discourse within Eastern Europe….”

    And perhaps it should be made plain that NGOs long pre-date this period although, as Samuel Moyn reminds us in The Last Utopia; Human Rights in History (2010), those NGOs that concentrated on human rights were severely constrained insofar as they struggled for the recognition and observance of rights within the UN’s framework. And Amnesty International’s human rights work, for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 (and the United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights the following year), might plausibly be considered a general model for both Helsinki Watch and later Human Rights Watch, although the Soviet Union’s Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights (1969) and later the Human Rights Committee (or Committee on Human Rights), founded in 1970 by Andrei Sakharov (with Andrei Tverdokhlebov and Valery Chalidze), may have been of more immediate relevance and inspiration. It was the Soviet dissidents who first made explicit the “legalist” approach articulated by the poet and mathematician, Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin (b. 1924), a strategy soon consistently adopted and practiced by both the Workers’ Defense Committee/KOR (later, the Social Self-Defense Committee/’KSS’-KOR) in Poland and VON (Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted) in Czechoslovakia.

    In any case, your principal point is well-taken: we should appreciate the causes and consequences of these direct appeals made to human rights instruments (i.e., universal moral and legal norms) at both the municipal and international levels by individuals and groups in the “parallel polis” (Václav Benda)[2] of civil society, engaged in morally “purifying” conventional power politics with what Gandhi termed satyāgraha (literally, ‘holding on to Truth,’ therefore, one who is bound to ‘truth-force’ or ‘soul-force’).[3]

    [1] Signed and ratified with reservations and declarations.
    [2] Benda’s conception is virtually identical in essence and function to Gandhi’s notion of the necessity for a “constructive programme” alongside nonviolent social protest and civil disobedience.
    [3] Although Gandhi himself of course rarely spoke in terms of “rights,” his focus was more on duties and obligations—as species of dharma—in the Indian religio-philosophical context, the source of a “right” of resistance or revolt, for example, found in or derived from a prior notion of obligation or duty.

  2. erratum: The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010)

  3. The concepts of a “parallel polis” and a “constructive programme” are also similar to Wini Breines’s notion of a “pre-figurative politics” in Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968: The Great Refusal (1989), ideas with conceptual pedigree and exemplary incarnations among anarchist thinkers and activists who, to their credit, were “sometimes suspected of being more involved in living the revolution than in making one” (See, for instance, the chapter on ‘The Anarchist Movement’ in Richard D. Sonn’s Anarchism [1992]).

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