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Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. It’s also the one-year anniversary of jailed Chinese writer and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo’s receipt, in absentia, of the Nobel Peace Prize. To mark these two occasions, the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague, Czech Republic, cosponsored a symposium on “The Epoch-Making Power of Free Speech.” Judges, activists, and scholars from around the world explored the limits of a government’s ability to curb free expression. They also considered the Internet and social media’s bold twenty-first century challenge to authoritarianism. Named for the famous writer, former dissident leader and eventual president of the Czech Republic, the Havel Library embodies the dedication of this former Communist country to support those who still seek freedom from oppression. Across this beautiful city, once invaded by Soviet troops, private and public institutions like the Havel Library, the People in Need Foundation, and the Czech Foreign Ministry are paying it forward by spotlighting human rights abuses and supporting dissidents in Burma, Cuba, Belarus, Russia, and elsewhere. As Carl Gershman, president of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy put it, “There’s a large group of people in [the Czech Republic] who feel an obligation to help others who are still fighting for freedom.” And they are doing so with powerful effect. Havel’s challenge to the former Communist system also provides insight and education to today’s freedom advocates. Take Charter 77. In 1976, the arrest of members of an underground rock band called Plastic People of the Universe prompted Havel and others to circulate a petition declaring “with new urgency how many fundamental rights for the time being are—unhappily—valid in our country only on paper. Completely illusory, for example, is the right to freedom of expression." More than 200 individuals signed Charter 77 in a campaign designed to evade detection before it was presented to Communist authorities in January 1977. Many, including Havel, were imprisoned for this simple but brave act of civil disobedience. As Communism was collapsing in Czechoslovakia in 1989, China’s Liu Xiaobo was being arrested for his role in the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. In 2009 Liu was convicted and jailed again for helping draft Charter 08, which says: “Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country. We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.” More than 2,000 Chinese signed Charter 08 before it was publicly released on December 10, 2008. Liu’s Charter 08 was a clear nod to Havel’s Charter 77—and a powerful reminder that freedom is universal. It is very fitting then that tonight in Prague, as the graying rockers of Plastic People of the Universe closed the symposium with four of their avant-garde tunes, that a plain wooden chair stood empty beside them, save for a placard reading “Free Liu Xiaobo.”
Amanda Schnetzer is Director of Global Initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. In this role, she is responsible for developing innovative research, programmatic, and policy efforts to advance societies rooted in political and economic freedom and to empower women to lead in their communities and countries. Previously she served as the Bush Institute’s founding director of the Human Freedom Initiative.
Amanda has twenty years of experience in the international arena and a background in public policy research and analysis, public affairs, and management of diverse, high-level stakeholders. As senior fellow and director of studies at Freedom House in New York, Amanda guided research for the organization’s definitive studies of freedom. She began her career at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, supporting research on U.S. foreign policy and international politics. Amanda is a published writer and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds degrees from Georgetown University and Southern Methodist University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
Chinese Prisoner’s Death Holds a Message for Americans and China
Liu Xiaobo, China’s most prominent dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner died this week. His death holds a message for Americans and for China.
Release of Chinese Political Prisoner a Timely Reminder to Support Freedom Advocates Abroad
More than half the world’s population still lives in countries where basic political rights and civil liberties are only partly respected, if at all.
Bringing Freedom to the Forefront of 21st Century Politics
Is the global liberal democratic order in danger? Purposefully constructed in the aftermath of World War II, this order -- and the American leadership that is central to its success --has contributed to securing peace and expanding prosperity in the United States and around the world. Today, that order appears to be dissolving. This crisis is not new or sudden; it has been mounting for several years. Global challenges like authoritarian capitalism, violent extremism, demographic pressures, and displaced populations have placed global freedom in decline. Fraying traditional alliances united by core values of freedom are increasingly weak to respond. It is alarming that the downdraft in democratic resilience over the past decade or more includes countries that have long been part of the consolidated democratic West. This is democratic deconsolidation. In much of the Western world, we see a rise in demagogic populism, illiberalism, nationalism, protectionism, and waning conf
The Importance of Speaking Truth to Tyrants
What the president of the United States says matters. Even during the realpolitik policies of détente under Richard Nixon, it was still clear that American policy was based on a set of core values. Nixon’s practical goals of reaching deals with America’s adversaries was never based on the “great chemistry” with himself or praising the Soviet or Communist Chinese leadership doing a “fantastic job.” When the president aligns himself with the autocrats and dictators, he aligns America with their oppression. He sends a message that corruption and brutality are not our concern. Contrast that with how Ronald Reagan defied much of world opinion in calling out the brutality of the Soviet system. Natan Sharansky, then a refusenik imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, later wrote for the Weekly Standard of his thoughts on Reagan’s pronouncement that the USSR was an evil empire: “It was the great, brilliant moment whe