PRAGUE -- The "Crimes of Communism" conference has opened in Prague to look at communism's legacy, ask how to hold rights violators accountable, and consider communist regimes still in existence.
At the three-day event, government officials, intellectuals, and former dissidents -- most from Eastern and Central Europe -- are also considering threats to democracy.
Jiri Liska, the vice president of the Czech Senate, opened the conference by stressing the need to fully examine the communist past and take action today.
"It is our duty, responsibility, and commitment not only to all the millions of victims of communist totalitarianism, but also -- perhaps even more so today -- a commitment, for the sake of our free and democratic future, to keep [examining] our past," Liska said.
Failure to deal properly with the communist past, Liska cautioned, has led to a basic distrust of the democratic institutions that replaced communism.
Most Central and Eastern European states have condemned their communist pasts. Many have brought in laws barring communist-era officials from holding key public posts. In Poland several former top communists, including General Wojciech Jaruzelski, are on trial for "communist-era crimes."
But prosecutions have been rare. While he called for punishing those responsible for such crimes, Liska acknowledged the difficulty of doing so.
"I think, however, that we have to admit that totalitarianism is a phenomenon that represents a crime against society and morality as a whole, and not only by some of its expressions, that it resists hard the simplest redress of grievances or achievement of justice," Liska said. "At least that's what it appears from the inside, from inside the countries that have emerged from totalitarianism."
Still, Liska maintained that fully opening the archives and studying the deportations, executions, and forced labor camps of communist-era Europe would produce results -- and allow names to be named.
The keynote speaker, Harry Wu, who spent nearly 20 years in the Chinese system of forced labor camps, or laogai, served as a reminder that in some parts of the world, communism is not a thing of the past.
"Communism is a crime. But today you have a conference to talk about it, and that's great," Wu said. "We have to clean it up. But the communists are still running things inside China. We cannot forget that."
After his release in 1979, Wu immigrated to the United States, where he founded the Laogai Research Foundation to study human rights abuses in China.
He added that while the West engages China economically, it must not ignore the repressive nature of its communist regime.
China is one of four communist states in existence today. The others are Laos, Cuba, and Vietnam. Some also consider North Korea to be a communist state.
Others scheduled to speak at the conference include:
- Nikita Petrov, vice-chairman of the Russian human rights group Memorial;
- Zianon Pazniak, leader of the Belarusian opposition movement under communism;
- Vytautas Landsbergis, former President of Lithuania;
- and Laszlo Tokes, the bishop whose persecution helped spark the Romanian revolution.
The conference is being organized by the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, which started work in 2008.
In the same year, the Czech capital also hosted the signing of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, which called for a thorough accounting of crimes committed under communism.