By DONNA URSCHEL
Václav Havel, human rights advocate and former president of the Czech Republic, urged citizens of dictatorial regimes, such as China, Cuba, Belarus and Burma, to persistently push for their human rights, in a lecture on May 24.
Havel also criticized the lifting of the embargo on weapons to China. "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, [which] was imposed after the  massacre of free-thinking young people in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the lifting of which would mean new dangers for the democratic government in Taiwan," he said.
Dissidents from China, Cuba, Burma and Belarus joined Havel onstage and asked him questions about human rights. Havel also took questions from the audience, including one that elicited his opinion on the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Havel said he is glad the regime of Saddam Hussein has ended, but "it's a complicated political question. Unfortunately, sometimes it's necessary to use power. Of course, we all prefer peaceful ways of changes."
Throughout the lecture, titled "The Emperor Has No Clothes," which was sponsored by the John W. Kluge Center at the Library, Havel urged everyone to support dissidents opposing dictatorial regimes. "Not only is it a moral responsibility, it is also in the vital interests of everyone who lives in democratic or free conditions not to be indifferent to the fate of people who do not enjoy the same good fortune, and to offer a wide spectrum of help to those who have the courage, under the rule of lies, to serve truth," he said.
In introductory remarks, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington hailed Havel as "a spokesman for human rights throughout the world, an inspirational hero of our time." Billington said Havel had been at the Library the past two months as a scholar, occupying the Chair of Modern Culture in the John W. Kluge Center. "We tried to give him a protected space so he can think and write without interruption, which he has done with admirable determination," Billington said.
Havel, a playwright and one of Europe's leading political, moral and intellectual figures, served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1990 to 1992, when the nation split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1993 he was elected to a five-year term as president of the Czech Republic and reelected in 1998.
Havel was a longtime dissident and proponent of human rights in communist Czechoslovakia during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. He emerged as a spokesperson for the Charter 77 human rights movement in 1977 and was subjected to harassment by the police and eventually spent five years in jail. In 1989, as the communist regime began to disintegrate, Havel helped negotiate a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy.
According to Havel, the most effective way to challenge dictators is to hold them accountable to their official documents or declarations that usually make grand pronouncements on the fair treatment of citizens. Dissidents, he said, should engage in a "persistent effort to take those who invoke those declarations at their word, and to demand that their words amount to more than hollow sound."
Havel explained, "Such an approach usually provokes great astonishment and anger in rulers who are used to no one taking them at their word, and used to no one having the courage to appeal to the real meaning of their words."
This approach is exactly what Havel and others did during the era of dissident resistance to communist totalitarian power. "We took our country's constitution, its laws and international treaties—chiefly the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference—very seriously, and we began to demand that the government respect them. That was how not only Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia did it, but also Solidarity in Poland, the Helsinki Committees in the Soviet Union and other opposition groups in the communist countries."
He continued: "Those in power were surprised and caught off guard, and it was hard for them to justify the persecution of those who demanded nothing more than that the authorities respect the rules that they themselves had set. And so a mere appeal to truth began to win out over the police and the army."
Havel urged the audience to support in every way possible "people who stand up to dictatorial regimes, who draw attention to all the contradictions between words and deeds that are part of these regimes' daily practice." After all, "repressive regimes violate [individual freedoms] in the hope that no one will expose such violations and that no one will dare shout out that the emperor has no clothes," he said.
The dissidents who joined Havel onstage were Harry Wu of China, Vitali Silitski of Belarus, Aung Din of Burma and Pedro J. Fuentes-Cid of Cuba. Each asked Havel a question on pursuing human rights. In general, Havel said he had no simple answers for their individual situations, but it was important for them to believe in their ideals and to build a broad base of support among citizens and many different groups in their countries.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.