In the Name of Children: Remembering Vaclav Havel

In the Name of Children: Remembering Vaclav Havel

As tributes are pouring in for Vaclav Havel, former President, playwright and the icon of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia who died on 18 December 2011, I wish to recall an extraordinary occasion when I had the opportunity to meet him and hear one of his most poignant speeches.

The occasion was 30 September 1990 at the United Nations in New York where the largest gathering of world leaders in history until that time was assembled at the historic World Summit for Children. As the designated senior UNICEF official in charge of drafting the Declaration and Plan of Action of the Summit, I had the opportunity to accompany, brief and witness the signing of the newly adopted UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by several world leaders, including President Vaclav Havel of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. He was visibly emotional as he signed the child rights Convention, and as he later delivered a short but the most touching and powerful speech in front of 70 other Heads of State and Government and scores of ministers and senior UN leaders.

Havel spoke about how dictators and dictatorial regimes exploit parents’ concern for the wellbeing of their children to extract subservience to an unjust and inhumane system in the name of children. Here are some memorable passages from that speech:

“A thousand times over the last decades I have seen in my country many bent backs, bent allegedly in the interest of children. A thousand times I have heard people defend their servitude to a hated regime by the argument that they were doing it only for their children – to be able to feed them, to make it possible for them to study, to be able to afford vacations at the seaside. A thousand times various acquaintances as well as strangers confided to me that they were in their mind and soul totally on our side – that is, on the side of so-called dissidents – and that they signed various petition campaigns aimed against us and organized by the totalitarian Government for the sole reason that they had children and thus could not afford the luxury of resistance. Immorality was thus committed in the name of children, and evil was served for their alleged good.

But I have seen even greater perversities …I saw Hitler waving a friendly way to fanaticised little girls of the Hitlerjugend; I saw the mass murderer Stalin kissing a child with the Red Communist Youth Organization scarf, a child whose parents ended up, like so many others in Gulag camps; I saw Gottwald, the Stalin of Czechoslovakia, smilingly joking with young miners, the builders of socialism and soon to be cripples; I saw the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein patting the children of his hostages, whom he now says, he is ready to have shot.

I know and have experienced how in Czechoslovakia thousands of people suffered in Communist concentration camps, how hundreds of them were executed and tortured to death, and all this for the fake happiness of generations yet unborn in some fake paradise.

How much evil has already been committed in the name of children!”

Then, after praising profusely the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which he had just signed, Vaclav Havel went on to say: “However, if it were possible, I would add another paragraph to the agreement I signed this morning. That paragraph would say that it is forbidden for parents and adults in general to lie, serve dictatorships, inform on others, bend one’s back, be scared of dictators, and betray one’s friends and ideals in the name and for the alleged interest of children, and that it is forbidden for all murderers and dictators to pat children on the head”.

Havel then went on to speak eloquently about how the children of the Velvet Revolution persuaded their parents to revolt and prevail against totalitarianism, and on the side of the truth. Havel’s Velvet Revolution was a delayed triumph of the Prague Spring unleashed by his predecessor Alexander Dubcek who said memorably: “They may crush the flowers, but they can’t stop the Spring”.

The last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, acknowledged that his liberalizing policies of glasnost and perestroika owed a great deal to Dubček’s “socialism with a human face”. But like the Prague Spring, glasnost and perestroika failed to prevent the collapse of the once mighty Soviet empire as the very premise of “scientific socialism” of the Marxist-Leninist, (and today we might add Maoist variety), proved simply incapable of transforming itself to a genuinely pluralistic democracy, because of its pseudo-scientific dogmatism.

We Nepali people would do well to be wary of promises of heaven on earth being doled out by ideologues of various stripes – especially those who are very artful in invoking “scientific” arguments in support of their utopian vision which can mislead our gullible young citizens. Let us reclaim the spirit of Nepal’s own 2006 Rhododendron revolution, as Vaclav Havel’s Velvet revolution did, in the genuine interest of our children.

Published by Nepali Times 2011-12-20