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From 1968 To Charter 77 To 1989 And Beyond

Anna Sabatova (courtesy
Anna Sabatova (courtesy
I was 25 years old when I made the decision to sign Charter 77. I didn't realize that I was taking part in a historical event. I simply signed, not for the first time, a document calling for the observance of human rights and freedoms.

I felt intuitively it was the right thing to do. My signature was an act of dissent against a regime whose legitimacy I had denied since the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Although 1977 seems a long time ago, the experiences of those days, the mechanisms that evolved, and the principles that were enunciated remain essential for human rights activists today. The movement was a product of the emotions of 1968 and of the international legal architecture that emerged in the wake of those tumultuous events. That architecture is still in place and the spirit of 1968 is still alive -- at least I hope it is.

Charter 77 was the product of a unique historical moment that had its roots in the unforgettable events of 1968. Most of those of us who signed it were driven by our feelings stemming from those days. In addition, the Czechoslovakian government in 1968 signed two key international agreements -- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. After they were ratified, they became a part of the Czechoslovak legal system and this gave Charter 77 the opportunity to push relentlessly for one simple and irrefutable demand -- that the government obey its own laws.

Further Impetus

The climate in Europe was favorable as well. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the forerunner of today's Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- was attended by all European countries, the United States, and Canada. The conference became a permanent official monitor for human rights and, in 1978, it proclaimed its support for independent civil rights organizations that were working in the field of human rights in all member countries.

In Czechoslovakia, the formation of Charter 77 was given a further impetus by the high-profile trial of the popular rock band Plastic People of the Universe. That trial reawakened civic activism in a country that had been demoralized following the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. It brought together numerous people who previously had nothing in common and no means of communicating with one another. You can never tell what event might be the spark that produces something of monumental importance.

Vaclav Havel (right) and other Charter 77 signatories address demonstrators in Prague on December 10, 1988, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declarations of the Human Rights.
And Charter 77 was indeed important. When the totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe began unraveling in 1989 -- just 12 years later -- no one either in the region or abroad could deny that Charter 77 and other similar movements had made a profound contribution to those processes. Such organizations contributed to the collapse of the undemocratic regimes in the former Soviet bloc and in the Soviet Union itself and they provided the cadres for the first post-totalitarian governments in most of those countries.

One of the key lessons of Charter 77 for activists today was the incredible breadth of its membership. It brought together people of the most diverse political views, from conservatives to democrats and liberals to revolutionary Marxists. Among the early signatories were many people who had been expelled from the Communist Party after 1968 -- people who had tried to reform the totalitarian state from within during the heady days of the Prague Spring.

A Coming Together

Charter 77 brought atheists into contact with Christians of all denominations. It united writers and artists with scientists and politicians, as well as laborers and clerks. It also brought together the old and the young. Seventeen-year-old dissidents could rub shoulders with people who had fought against fascist Germany and who served time in Stalinist labor camps.

This broad collective effort helped many signatories to overcome great bitterness in order to advance the shared values of Charter 77. Josef Zverina's essay "Living Without Hate" is a wonderful expression of Christian forgiveness and -- together with the essays of Jan Patocka -- helped form the spiritual environment of the entire movement. Because of Charter 77's broad membership, we all felt firmly anchored in society as a whole.

I still think it is a miracle that such a diverse organization stuck together and continued working for 13 years. Over that time, Charter 77 grew stronger and engaged in increasingly ambitious activities at home and abroad. And in this there are more lessons for activists everywhere. I would attribute this miracle to four factors: a clear basic program with precisely defined limits; simple rules and a minimal organizational structure; a culture of dialogue; and the extraordinary personal responsibility of the leading signatories, especially the Charter 77 spokespeople.

The mission of Charter 77 was simple and clear -- it fought for the observance of human rights in accordance with the two international charters that Czechoslovakia had ratified. The document asserted that the state had the responsibility for the observance of human rights, and also that citizens had the right to demand that observance. In the words of the founding document, Charter 77 was based on "faith in the idea of civic involvement."

At the same time, the document clearly stated that Charter 77 "is not a base for opposition political activities" and does not propose its own "political or social reforms." Instead, it sought "to a constructive dialogue with political and state power by drawing attention to various specific instances of violations of human and civil rights, to document them, and to propose solutions."

Model Of Simplicity

Organizationally, Charter 77 was a model of simplicity. "Charter 77 is a free, informal, and open association of people of various convictions, various faiths, and various professions who are united by the insist on the respecting of civil and human rights in our country and throughout the world," the document states. "The Charter is not an organization; it has no statutes, no permanent bodies, and no organized membership. Everyone who agrees with the idea behind it, who participates in its work, and who supports it is a member."

The original document also gave three people -- Jan Patocka, Vaclav Havel, and Jiri Hajek -- the right to serve as spokesmen for the movement and to represent it in its dealings with the state and other organizations. Experience showed the wisdom of this practice and it quickly became a tradition.

Within days of the proclamation of Charter 77, Havel was arrested, and Patocka died 10 days later. For several months, Hajek was the only person in a position to speak for the movement or sign documents. But in the autumn of 1977, Ladislav Hejdanek and Marta Kubisova were appointed spokespeople as well. A few months later, an exhausted Hajek was replaced by Jaroslav Sabata. Whenever a spokesperson was arrested, someone else was named to replace them.

Every Good Idea Welcome

Later it was decided that each person would serve as a spokesperson for one year and would be responsible for finding a suitable candidate to replace them when their term was nearing completion. That replacement was supposed to be a respected personality of the same ideological leaning as the person to be replaced. As a general rule, at any given time one spokesperson would be a former communist, one was from the noncommunist opposition, and the third represented culture and the arts.

The mechanism for determining Charter 77's work, for deciding what documents it would issue, also deserves attention. First, every good idea was welcome; every initiative on the part of signatories and even outsiders was appreciated. But only spokespeople could decide whether a document would be published and, if so, how. Charter 77 was not a democratic organization and there was no voting. It operated on a principle of consensus and a culture of dialogue that proved surprisingly effective. All three spokespeople had to agree before a document could be circulated, and the spokespeople followed an unwritten rule that they consult with a wide range of signatories about each new document.

The principles of dialogue and consensus were closely connected with the mutual respect of all signatories. This respect was manifested in the consensual language of Charter 77 documents; terms were used that were acceptable to all. The insistence on nonideological language helped to bridge ideological differences and move the common effort forward. If you go through all Charter 77's documents (at least until 1989), you will not find any references to the Czechoslovak state as communist. This was not done of fear, but out of respect for those Charter 77 signatories who had been expelled from the party but still believed that social justice and the ideas of communism were not incompatible.

I would close my musings on the meaning the communist-era human-rights movement has for activists today with a thought from those days that I think resounds clearly today: "Today people know again that there are things worth suffering for, and that the things that are worth suffering for are what make life worth living."

Anna Sabatova has been involved in human rights activity for nearly 40 years. She served three years in prison for distributing leaflets in Czechoslovakia, was a founding member of Charter 77, and won the UN Human Rights Award in 1998. She is the head of the Czech Helsinki Group. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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