Friday, January 06, 2017

Charter 77: First published on 6 January 1977

Today, as the 2017 Verso Radical Diary reminds me, is the date of the signing of Charter 77. First, by way of historical backdrop and relevant causal conditions: 

“The sweeping political reforms introduced by [Mikhail] Gorbachev in the late 1980s completely altered the Soviet government’s response to civil resistance both in east-central Europe and in the Soviet Union itself. Far from seeking to crack down with force on non-violent resistance in east-central Europe, Gorbachev tolerated and indeed actively encouraged sweeping political change in the region. Similarly, by the late 1980s, Gorbachev had given unprecedented latitude for the formation of unofficial groups in the Soviet Union that sought to achieve their demands through civil resistance. Even when in 1989 the communist systems in east-central Europe collapsed and when the proliferation of unrest in the Soviet Union began to threaten the Soviet regime’s own existence, Gorbachev declined to use force with the ruthless consistency that would have been needed to re-establish order. Hence, civil resistance, which would have been forcibly suppressed under previous Soviet leaders, contributed to the dissolution of both the [Party-State] communist bloc and the Soviet Union.”—Mark Kramer  

And now a bare bones introduction to Charter 77: 

“Motivated in part by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, the text of Charter 77 was prepared in 1976. In December 1976, the first signatures were collected. The charter was published on 6 January 1977, along with the names of the first 242 signatories, which represented various occupations, political viewpoints, and religions. Although Václav Havel, Ludvík Vaculík and Pavel Landovský were detained while trying to bring the charter to the Federal Assembly and the Czechoslovak government and the original document was confiscated, copies circulated as samizdat and on 7 January were published in several western newspapers (including Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Times and New York Times) and transmitted to Czechoslovakia by Czechoslovak-banned radio broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. 

Charter 77 criticized the government for failing to implement human rights provisions of a number of documents it had signed, including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia, the Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Basket III of the Helsinki Accords), and 1966 United Nations covenants on political, civil, economic, and cultural rights. The document also described the signatories as a ‘loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.’ It emphasized that Charter 77 is not an organization, has no statutes or permanent organs, and ‘does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity.’ This final stipulation was a careful effort to stay within the bounds of Czechoslovak law, which made organized opposition illegal.” (From the introduction of the Wikipedia entry on Charter 77) 

For an excellent online introduction to the role of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, please see this post (Part III of a wonderful series) from several years ago, “Helsinki and the Charter 77 Declaration,” by Mark Edwards at the law blog, Concurring Opinions.

Here is a short list of essential reading:  
  • Kramer, Mark, “The Dialectics of Empire: Soviet Leaders and the Challenge of Civil Resistance in East-Central Europe, 1968-91,” in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, eds. Civil Resistance and Power Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). [There are several pertinent essays regarding civil resistance in the East-Central European ‘Velvet’ revolutions.] 
  • Skilling, H. Gordon. Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976). 
  • Skilling, H. Gordon. Charter 77 and the Human Rights in Czechoslovakia (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981). 
  • Skilling, J. Gordon. Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1989). 
  • Thomas, Daniel C. The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). 
Regarding the second image immediately above: 

On May 29, 1979, StB undertook a major police action against VONS members, subsequently ten of them were arrested and taken into custody. VONS is the Czech acronym for Výbor na obranu nespravedlivě stíhaných (Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted): 

“The committee was founded on April 27, 1978, by a group of Charter 77 signatories [among whom were Václav Havel and Jan Patočka, the latter having died of a stroke ‘after a long and intense interrogation by the secret police’ before the committee was formed] with the aim of following cases of persons facing various forms of state persecution, from police harassment to unjust prosecution in courts of law. Its members helped individuals facing persecution with obtaining legal representation and acted as mediators in acquiring assistance of a financial or other nature. Observing legal formalities, they addressed their communiqués to the Czechoslovak authorities, calling on them to take steps to rectify injustices perpetrated against individuals in the cases monitored. They also passed reports on the cases monitored to entities and persons abroad, from where this information was reported back to Czechoslovakia via the radio stations Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and the BBC. A number of VONS members were persecuted by the police and justice system for their activities, the most well-known case being the legal process against six of its members in 1979. The vast majority of VONS communiqués were published in the samizdat bulletin Informace o Chartě 77 (Information on Charter 77). The Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted was also active after November 1989, when it focused on amending the criminal code, calming the stormy situations in the prisons at the time, as well as, for example, on preparing a general amnesty and rehabilitation laws. Members of VONS also made efforts to purge the judiciary, but with minimal success. At their meeting of July 3, 1996, VONS members decided to suspend the activities of the committee for an indefinite period.” 

See too this: “Existentialism, Phenomenology, and Intellectual Responsibility: The Playwright & The Philosopher” 

And: “Socio-Political Conflict Resolution & Nonviolence: A Select Bibliography and Historical Exemplum”


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