Below is the full text of Osman Kavala's letter to the 11th international conference in honour of the laureate of the 2023 Václav Havel Human Rights Prize held by Václav Havel Library on October 10, 2023, in Prague.
I am very much honoured to be shortlisted for the 2023 Václav Havel Human Rights Prize and I am very happy that I will be able to address the participants of this conference thanks to the organisation of the Václav Havel Library and Charter 77 foundations.
The legendary Charter 77 was an inspiring civil initiative for us in Turkey, although the regime and the political factors leading to human rights violations were of a different kind in our country. In 1993 we established the Turkish chapter of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly which came into being mainly thanks to Havel’s initiative and was inspired by his ideas about creating new forms of dialogue among citizen groups and between citizens and governments. Assuming civic responsibility and developing initiatives from below in order to provide genuine content to democracy, as Havel argued, were also very relevant ideas for my country.
In his very influential essay of 1978, “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel presented an analysis of the East European countries by distinguishing their regimes from classical dictatorships and totalitarianism as it is generally understood. He used the term “posttotalitarian system” to discuss how ideology functions to legitimize repression and power structures in turn serve to sustain ideology. He argued that this posttotalitarian system has been built on the foundations of the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society. He was warning about “the deep crisis in which humanity is dragged helplessly along by the automatism of global technological society” and was worried that in this civilization, which he thought is also a consumerist civilization, a sense of “responsibility for anything higher than one’s own survival” would be hindered.
This was a warning also for the West and it is sadly relevant in our current international environment where the rise of so-called populist political parties and movements which are able to gain popular support in many countries is a source of increasing concern. These parties and movements share a common hostility toward cosmopolitanism and international law protecting human rights; when in power, they tend to dismantle the separation of powers and distort the functioning of the judiciary system in conformity with universal legal norms to varying degrees. While they do not have coherent ideologies, they are nevertheless able to appeal to the masses with polarizing narratives on differences of identity and to kindle prejudices. Deriving their force from the widespread sense of insecurity fostered by the global economic order, they present a threat to democratic plurality valued and defended by the civil society organizations which Havel saw as agents contributing to the advent of a moral social order.
I believe that a new and genuinely universalist humanism could be effective in avoiding the dangers presented by this threat. This would call for a reshaping of political and socioeconomic relations to foster sentiments of responsibility and solidarity by strengthening the rule of law and establishing humane conditions of life and work on a world scale so that the dignity and spiritual integrity of all individuals would be protected on a world scale. I remember what Havel called the “existential revolution” and I think that strong political and civic initiatives endorsing universal norms of justice and socioeconomic equality are needed to accomplish this revolution.
I continue to believe that the advent of a humane world order is possible. As Havel wrote to his wife Olga from prison, “The most important thing of all is not to lose hope and faith in life itself”.