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Irwin Cotler

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Havel Was the Ultimate Humanist

Posted: 12/20/11 03:38 PM ET

Upon hearing the news of Vaclav Havel's passing, my thoughts turned to the winter of 1989. Twenty-two years ago, I was in Moscow as part of the Canadian delegation accompanying Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on his trip to the Soviet Union, and I took the occasion to visit with Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident who helped make the 1989 Velvet Revolution possible, and with whom I had the privilege of working closely over the years.

While in Sakharov's apartment, the phone rang. It was Francesco Janouch, a leader of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia calling to tell Sakharov that the Czech politburo had fallen and that there were over 250,000 people celebrating its demise. Sakharov was elated. As he told Janouch, capturing history in the moment, "I feel 21 years younger tonight" -- a reference to the still-born Prague Spring of 1968.

Charter 77 was the Czech equivalent of the Helsinki monitoring groups, which sought to oversee human rights in the Soviet Union, and for which I chaired the Canadian branch. I became, together with Karel Schwarzenberg -- then chairman of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights -- part of the first Helsinki Delegation to visit the Soviet Union in 1988. Schwarenzberg and Janouch were both close friends of Havel's, and served as an early point of contact between me and him.

Canada had a close connection to the Helsinki groups. In 1975, 35 nations of the East and West met in Helsinki, Finland, to sign the Final Act on security and co-operation in Europe. Generally known as the Helsinki Accords, the agreements linked trade and security with a country's respect for human rights. Canada was responsible for including in the Helsinki Final Act provisions relating to the reunification of families, freedom of emigration, and freedom of ideas.

Even by that time, the climate in the Soviet Union was changing. As one refusenik put it to me during my tenure on the Canadian Helsinki Watch group, "We are not prisoners of conscience because nobody is brutalizing us in prison anymore, but we are prisoners of conscience in the sense that we have to live every day of our lives in a trap."

I had met with Havel over the years since that phone call to discuss our common causes: the promotion and protection of human rights the world over and the defence of dissidents. More recently, in 2007, we joined together at the Prague Conference on Democracy and Security, a gathering of dissidents from all over the world that resulted in the Prague Charter, a sort of manifesto for dissidents.

The resounding theme from that conference -- which Havel supported and embodied -- is that the promotion of democracy and human rights in oppressive countries is bound up with the struggle for international peace and security; and that those who would repress the human rights of their own citizens will threaten the rights of the citizens of other countries.

A playwright and poet -- and former dissident himself -- Havel was the final President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, and served in this latter capacity from 1993-2003. Among his many honours and recognitions is the Order of Canada -- for which I, and others, nominated him. The Order was awarded for his "unwavering belief in democratic ideals" and promotion of "respect for human rights and the importance of international dialogue on the world stage."

Indeed, as the tributes upon his death attest, Vaclav Havel's influence in Europe stretched far beyond Czech borders. As U.S. President Barack Obama put it, Havel "embodied the aspirations of half a continent that had been cut off by the Iron Curtain, and helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe."

Havel's commitment to the cause of human rights was manifest in his advocacy, such as in a 2009 New York Times op-ed wherein he excoriated the UN Human Rights Council for its election of countries with poor human rights records to judge the situation of human rights in other countries, an issue we had discussed on panels together in Prague and elsewhere.

Most recently -- and in one of his last pieces of writing -- Havel co-authored the introduction to a book just published that I co-edited entitled, "The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time," wherein he decried the inaction of the international community in the face of the mass atrocities in the 20th century and expressed hope that we commit to making the rallying cry of "Never again!" a reality in the 21st.

While the world is mourning the loss of a hero to all humanity, it behoves us to recall his fundamental moral courage and commitment. In his words, "the only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle."

This article originally appeared in the National Post.