University of Chicago Divinity School
Ambassador Palouš is a political philosopher and was among the first signatories of the Charter 77 document calling on the communist regime in power in Czechoslovakia to respect human rights. In November 1989 he became one of the founders of the Civic Forum, which replaced the communist regime, and in 1990 he became a Minister of Parliament. He was appointed Ambassador by Czech President Vaclav Havel in the summer of 2001.
Jean Elshtain: I want to welcome all of you to this event and also welcome our friends from Minnesota Public Radio who are recording this series on “Does Human Rights Need God?” sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the University of Chicago Branch of the Pew Forum and on behalf of Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School, I want to welcome all of you. I want to remind you that this is a continuing series. We do have another speaker who was scheduled originally to appear this Spring, but because of scheduling conflicts we have had to postpone his lecture. The distinguished legal theorist, Abdullahi An-Na’im from Emory University, who will speak to us from a Muslim perspective on this issue, “Does Human Rights Need God?” in the fall. So please, check our website for the date for that re-scheduled event. Today we are honored to have with us, his Excellency, Martin Palouš, who is the Czech Ambassador to the United States.
Let me tell you a little bit about Ambassador Palouš. He was born in Prague in 1950. He studied chemistry, philosophy and social science at the Charles University. He has been here even before his current capacity. He was a visiting professor at Northwestern in 1993 and 1994 and he has lectured extensively in the United States. His political career is a long and impressive one. He has been a prolific advocate and activist for human rights throughout his career. Those who have some familiarity with Czech history will perhaps recognize him as one of the signatories of Charter 77, the first Charter 77, which called for the communist regime to respect human rights. He served as a spokesman for Charter 77. He was also a founding member of Civic Forum.
Again, those of you familiar with the extraordinary transformations in Central Europe in 1989 will recognize Civic Forum as the sort of umbrella civic group, if you will, that was the very heart of those transformations that became known to the world as the Tender or the Velvet Revolution and that helped to spear-head the extraordinary transformations that led to the replacement of the communist regime. After those changes, Ambassador Palouš served in the Federal Assembly in 1990. He then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an advisor, served as a Deputy Minister from 1990 to 1992 and became Deputy Foreign Minister in 1998. He was appointed Ambassador by Vaclav Havel, the Czech president at the time in the Summer of 2001. It’s a special pleasure for me to introduce Martin Palouš because he and I are friends. I first met him in Prague in 1991 or 1992 and one of my favorite pictures, photographs actually, is a photograph of a panel that was held at this particular event. President Havel was present and in this photograph we can see Ambassador Palouš, not Ambassador at the time, who has a big grin on his face and then there is President Havel who is looking slightly bemused and then there I sit looking absolutely stunned that I could possibly be in this company and I remain stunned by the fact that I am in this good company including today, with the presence of Ambassador Palouš among us. The title of his lecture today is “What Kind of God Does Human Rights Require?” Ambassador Palouš.
Ambassador Palouš: Thank you very much for this kind and maybe, too big introduction. I am ashamed and a little nervous now to start my talk. Actually, the whole series is announced by the question, “Does Human Rights Need God?” Jean already told me that many speakers who have been here before me obviously tried to raise the other question, which is almost automatic, “Does God Need Human Rights?” What I am saying is that I would like to distinguish between, I think, two perspectives that come together in this discourse in my view, but they have to be distinguished. The first one is the perspective in which God is in the center. It would be rather theological discourse, maybe Aristotelian philosophy would have to be taken into account and what we would have in mind first would be vita contemplativa or theoretical stance and we would try to use this concept as a point of departure. Obviously, my understanding is that in human rights discourse, the other perspective, the perspective of vita activa and the relation between human rights and political order is more important, but what I would like to do and maybe this is one of the ideas I am trying to borrow from Hannah Arendt, is the distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa always is to be borne in mind because otherwise we might run into certain confusions.
The second distinction I would like to make is also a very simple one. This is a historical perspective. We have to be aware that this question obviously has certain history. Our main concern is “why now?” What we are expecting from that question when we are raising this question right now in our current situation? But, it’s a triviality to remind to ourselves that when we want to talk about the history of human rights and I think that the history of ontotheology too, we may want to talk about ancient origins of the problem and maybe the transformation, which is connected with the emergence of modernity, and only then give our actual situation, now, I would say, let’s say the 20th and 21st century with our very very specific questions.
I am not going to focus so much on theology today. I would rather talk about the other perspective, the perspective of vita activa. But still, I think that it would be very interesting to follow the whole history of ontological proofs of God’s existence and we can go back to Anselm of Canterbury and to his situation in which he had some reasons to make his argument you know, for sure, very well and then we can look at Decartes, for instance and his concept of God, he had to take in consideration in order to overcome his skeptical position in the times of the 30 Years War in the beginning of the 17th century–in the moment also a big transition of whole political architecture of Europe and I would say of the civilized world and then, obviously, you have to take into consideration what Kant decided to do, and how he transformed the whole discourse on God from the realm of pure reason or theoretical reason to the realm of practical reason. God became one of the postulates of practical reasons and new theology, moral theology, theology in which God was only involved in human matters first, I think, has marked a new era then on-and-on maybe through many thinkers up to Nietzche and theorists of the 20th century. So this would be one remark and we have to always have this history in mind when we want to talk about our theme.
But what is more important for me is the history of human rights and again, I am not going to say anything new reminding to ourselves that, I think, the origin of this discourse coincides with the emergence of the Greek city-state. I don’t think that the question of human rights could be raised without the discovery of public space, polis and the concept of rule of law. We can help ourselves with the Aristotelian terminology, in which he tries to distinguish between good government and bad government when he says that good government means that a ruler is not promoting his will, but is guardian of law. It doesn’t matter whether we have rule of one, few or many, so much as whether we have a rule. Because in this situation, I think we could distinguish is between a human being as human being and human being as a citizen, as a free citizen of polis as someone who can actively participate in social contract. Aristotle says that what is essential for the life of polis is primordial original agreement concerning the distinction or difference between good life and sheer life, between what does it mean to live well and just live.
That is exactly what, how Greeks, try to formulate the difference between themselves and let’s say Persians. Barbarian nations that can live in luxury and a plan to do everything, but lacking the most important thing and that is human freedom and to this situation I would like to use, just to make my case not that long, comes this beautiful anecdote. I like it very much. It speaks about a man whose name was Diogenes from Sinope who came to Athens. He was, as you know, he lived in a barrel as we were told. So, he was a kind of homeless person. And Athenians asked him “who are you?” and obviously, they had in mind that we are Athenians, we are proud citizens of state, holders of all these rights which belong to us because of our status. And his answer is famous, “Cosmopolites ami”, I am cosmopolitan and he meant by that that he claims to have also some rights as a polites. But his point of reference is not a city-state but cosmos.
Obviously, that was a permanent problem of ancient concepts if you want to say of human rights. You can easily tell to me that this concept was not existent in its modern form. It was not, but the tension between the citizen and human being was present. And the question that was very pertinent in ancient city-state who, what was the criteria to be a citizen and what about the others? I think that a human rights question really starts as something that comes from the outside, what about the others? Then, obviously, it is only just a very brief and broad panoramic view. I am now trying to present before us the modern times. Again, I think, this situation starts with a contract, with a general agreement concerning trusts we recognize as self evident as the main reason that this or other political community is coming into existence.
What, I think, we can say about human rights in this context is that they are not present with us because we want to give these rights to ourselves, but because they are based…they are rooted in natural law, they are endowed by the creator, by God. They can only be declared and respected and, I think, that if you then study the constitutional traditions of European, well, not only European nation-states, you always find this interesting interface between fundamental charters of rights as declarations that cannot be changed. They can only be recognized and respected and the political process that is defined by the constitution. Again, what we find here is tension at least between being a citizen and being a human being, between civil rights, if you want to say and human rights, and the question is who can be responsible for those rights that are guaranteed if you have rights?
I mentioned Hannah Arendt, in her book on totalitarianism, there is a long chapter in which she is quite critical, as far as the concept of human rights is concerned. There is a long tradition of those who are reminding us, please be realistic. Human rights, that simply cannot be granted by anything more by God, can turn into just a dream, but they are not taken seriously in real situations. But still, we can definitely speak about judicial review, about all forms of guarantees.
I could give you my own report on the situation in the Czech Republic in that respect. But I think this is only a second transformation which we have to take into consideration. There is the third one and it has to do with the 20th and 21st century. The century, that again, Hannah Arendt once characterized as a century of stateless persons. A century when this problem has become for some reasons more and more actual and pertinent. Those who know the history of human rights in the 20th century may know that most likely I will now stop talking about the process of internationalization of human rights, which means guarantees to be given to human individuals, human beings by international community. But, before I go to that point, let me quote you from, as I said, two sources, the first Hannah Arendt, who I already mentioned that she tried to summarize her encounter, maybe the central phenomenon of the 20th century and the phenomenon that capitalized the process of internationalization of human rights more than anything else–totalitarianism, and she says “Anti-Semitism, not merely the hatred of Jews, imperialism, not merely conquest, totalitarianism not merely dictatorship. One after the other, more brutally than the other have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee, which can be found in a new political principle, in a new law on earth whose validity must comprehend the whole humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.”
I think in a nut shell, we have here what is at stake in the context of this debate on international human rights, but again, we have lots of troubles in front of us, when we want just to tackle this problem. Just to quote from another central European philosopher, political philosopher in the 20th century, actually in this context a very straightforward and harsh critic of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Eric Voegelin, when he wrote his devastating critique of Hannah Arendt’s book, he wrote, “the vast majority of all human being’s life on earth are affected in some measure by the totalitarian mass movement of our time. The patriarchal function of Western civilization as it were, has reached a cadaveric poison spreading its infections through the body of humanity. What no religious founder, no philosopher, no imperial conqueror of the past has achieved to create a community of mankind by creating a common concern for all man has now been realized through the community of suffering and the earth-wise expansion of Western foulness.”
Our movement in this context is very simple. When we speak now, and I think it is a part of our political discourse, about humanity, maybe in the context of crimes against humanity or the tasks that are common for all humanity, we should look at the way this concept has come into existence, how humanity eventually has been constituted for us. This concept most likely is not here with us from the origins of the world. It is only for a section in the 20th century that we have this community of suffering that Voegelin is talking about. And if we can speak about a social contract, that was helping the birth of ancient nations’ city-states. When we can discuss and compare different types of social contracts and maybe different levels of religious intervention, the presence when modern societies were coming into existence, maybe Lockeian version of that story in the American case, Rousseau-ian version in the French case and maybe Burke-ian more conservative approach in the case of English.
I think there is a legitimate question to ask ourselves whether this new principle Hannah Arendt is talking about, new law on the earth has something to do with great the great question, can we talk about a social contract that can exist in such a diverse and large community as all mankind. Because, obviously, human rights, a product of modern enlightenment have come into serious troubles in the 20th century, in the century of many religions being together, many cultural traditions finding themselves together in one common public space. With all problems connected with the danger of relativism and skepticism on the one side and fundamentalism on the other. If you follow the human rights discourse today, actually, it is a standard argument used again and again, is that the doctrine of human rights is some sort of Western hidden European imperialism, to impose certain standards and traditions on others. How can we overcome the fact that we have different origins, different cultural perceptions that maybe we are finding ourselves in a different situation in historical times–some countries more developed than others and during the stage of human history even only now, in the process of emancipation, de-colonialization and so and so forth.
The main topic of my lecture today, our central European tradition, that I think is connected with the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka and our experience in Charter 77. Patocka, as philosopher was very much aware of that moment that the 20th century is not only a century in which, let’s say this universalistic spirit can absorb not only us Europeans or you Atlanticists, but also other countries are here. Again, Hannah Arendt’s small reminder, she believes that maybe one of the most important events of the 20th century was 1947 when India was given independence and the way how the United Kingdom, Great Britain processed this situation, obviously, nothing is perfect, but still, totalitarian temptations were, I think, kept under control by good and solid British traditions here.
Patocka says that the 20th century is in many ways the end of Europe, in which Europe ceased to be with the First World War, what it used to be before. The 19th century was still, I think, the century of crystal clear European-centurism. It was the Golden Age of Europe. International law was the law among European nations. Europeans had big problems to have an international treaty with Turkey. Just to read the discussions from the 1860s because of the religious differences in the background. The 20th century, tried to first of all, Europe had to give power to its immediate heirs, the United States and later the Soviet Union, but non-Europeans as if after having slept for centuries all of a sudden awoken and God entered the political scene. Arendt speaks about post-European mankind, talking from the pre-European depth of time. I don’t want to speculate, but what I am seeing today, the pictures from the war theater of operation, it is interesting that the theater of operations is Mesopotamia and if you know where the cradle of civilization is and what the Tower of Babel was where Abraham was coming from exactly, these other places visited by American troops fighting with Saddam Hussein and his guards and obviously, my question is “Is it just a phenomenon of a socialist Baathism that can be explained by terminology we know from our 20th century, or should we try to at least to awake our collective memories and see how difficult the situation is in post-modern mankind if all these different inspirations and temptations and powers and brutality and ruthlessness and difficulty of communication?”
So, I think, this is my primary remarks, the setting of stage for my argument. As I said, I would like to talk about Patocka and central European tradition in the context of the history of the 20th century, but before I do that, I would like to very shortly comment on a thinker that, in my view, is fascinating and maybe can help us to understand what is at stake when he wants to raise our question concerning human rights and God, human rights and sort of transcendent principle that should guide our uses or our concepts including human rights. My central argument would be, I would say, political moderation: The ability to put ourselves under certain restraints and limits. Maybe Socratic knowledge that always is telling us that there is a distinction between divine knowledge on the one hand and the very uncertain human way of knowing and the politician I would like to mention and political philosopher is Marcus Cicero, Roman philosopher and politician and orator, who is known that he brought the Greek tradition into the Roman context. And I think that there are certain things which we should take into consideration when we want to discuss human rights issues in our situation. First of all, what was philosophy for Cicero? It was definitely not doctrine or some sort of organized teaching, but a way of life, a way of life that must be exactly aware of this limited fragile and uncertain situation of a human being, at least as far as our ability to know things. The basis of Socratic knowledge is that we have to admit that our knowledge is only limited. But we know that we don’t know and obviously, as a suggestion that this should be used as a leading political principle is something scandalous. It is really something suspicious and for right reasons, Socrates was condemned to death and the charge was that he tried to introduce gods into the public discourse of his polis that are not generally recognized and that he was a subversive element.
The moderate thinker, Cicero, was aware of the danger of philosophical thought for the public order. But at the same time, he was aware of the importance of philosophizing and philosophy as a way of life for the healthy state of public order as he saw it in his times and in his country and he was one of those philosophers for whom dialogue was exactly the right way to express things. Dialogue in which truth is definitely a matter of our concern, but in which no one can claim that he or she possesses the ultimate truth and even if not up to the author of a dialogue to decide what is the right conclusion. The readers have their own chance to draw their own conclusions and maybe to cultivate their own judgment. If you want to overcome different positions, I think dialogue is a very good tool how to cultivate moderation. When Cicero wanted…or thought it would be a good idea that statesmen or politicians spent some time with philosophy, he definitely did not want to equip them or endow them with a kind of ideology to convince them that philosophical activity and maybe activity brought to Rome from alien foreign tradition from Greece, is a good idea.
Cicero was very much aware of a certain danger in his society among intellectuals. It was his epic grandstands that freedom is freedom from politics, that good men, men of integrity, men of virtuous qualities does not bother with this dirty business of politics. For Cicero politics was the real playground. To be virtuous, but not in the public space would not be enough for Cicero.
So, I think, that what you have in front of us is someone, I think, who tries to bring a certain spirit of transcendence to his own political community, one that is very concrete, that has its daily problems. He does not believe that anything, and I can say even human rights, can serve as a principle that can solve all problems, that we have to be aware of the importance of being moderate, to perhaps overcome differences in certain polite and legal ways.
Cicero was also knows as a propagator of the so-called mixed regime. In a certain tradition he tried to answer the question, “What makes the Roman Republic that great?” It was not that it represented the best regime. He didn’t believe in this type of perfection, but that it developed a reasonable system of checks and balances, balance between rights and duties. The balance that can be restored in a form of dialogue between different opinions. He believed that political community must be united around two things, the idea of justice and common good. That there is always interest in justice and that there is a common good that is more than some of private good, of participants in the polis. I think it sounds familiar. It is a relatively, even a good example for us to take into consideration and in this context in one of Cicero’s dialogues in the Republic, the following dialogue is taking place concerning justice. There are three interlocutors, two representing extant positions. The theme of that discourse is what is just and what is unjust. One of the interlocutors expresses a, I think, Machiavellian point of view, that justice is a matter of convention and actually is something what we should not recommend to real politicians. Concern for justice is a weakness because all that matters is strength. It is not weak power, or soft power that we are talking about, but the real power. Without these power projections, Rome would not be what it is right now, it would be a poverty-stricken village somewhere out there. So, if you are a Machiavellian politician and responsible for your city, you have to be very cautious and not to go too far with your position, with your fervor for justice. This is exactly what we would like to deny or not to accept as the solution and on the other side, we have another position and this is a beautiful answer as it has been formulated, “The true law is right reason, in agreement with nature. It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. It surmounts to duty by its commands and averts from wrong-doings by its traditions. It is a sin to try to alter this law nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligation by senate or by people and we need not to look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it and there will be no different laws at Rome or at Athens or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations at all times and there will be one master and one ruler, that is God over us all for He is the author of this law, its promulgator and its enforcing judge.”
So I think that this moralist’s position is quite consistent and when I have read that we can hear some arguments from those who promulgate human rights in our societies because it should be valid everywhere and for everybody and it is God who is to be its promulgator and its enforcing judge.
Cicero is a moderate realist and was quite aware that moral aspect is definitely important for human society, but human society has to be very cautious to go that far, that human position will always be somewhere in between, that civil society is not a society of angels or society of evil demons, but real human beings and for that purpose, I think, Cicero became a preacher of decency, preacher of moderation and at the same time someone who was empirical rather than stretching too far, into a utopian thinker. So, I think, that we always should keep in mind this Ciceronian example. You can tell me easily that Cicero was formulating his ideas not in the moment in which the Republic he loved so dearly was on the way up, but it was already crisis of Republic that was present at the moment he was formulating his ideas, but maybe it’s also something we should take into consideration that what is maybe an essential part of existence of civil society for Cicero, its openness on the process. Its processuality, it’s a belief that we simply can keep certain processes in this mood of pendulum bouncing from one side to another as a reversible process of democracy, but that we should also be ready for irreversible moments, that historicity and the fact that human things are finite should also enter into our considerations concerning our ability to preach moderation and to reflect and to find again and again new beginnings.
When Karl Popper, in the modern times, speaks about two major features of an open society, there is the ability of self-reflection and the ability of self-transformation. I think that is exactly when we can find this type of realistic Ciceronian, but very cultivated spirit.
I mentioned earlier two thinkers, Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin. What is interesting in them that they were people born in the first decade of the 20th century and all passed away. Jan Patocka is part of that generation, before the fall of the BerlinWall. None of them lived long enough to see the miraculous change in central Europe. All had problems in their home turfs, two of them Arendt and Voegelin, had to immigrate to the United States. They both were aware of the difficulty of common sense and let’s say Ciceronian tradition in our part of the world. Jan Patocka stayed, decided to stay. He didn’t leave. He spent his life in central Europe, but they in a way all spoke one in the same language and I think that the question of human rights seemed to be a central question, in a way, for all of them.
The way they presented their cases, I think, is something I would offer to your consideration as my contribution to that question, “Does Human Rights Need God?” I mentioned already that philosophers are characterized rather by way of life than by their doctrines. You should know that Patocka was a pupil of Edmund Husserl, a phenomenologist, and that he was very much influenced by his teaching and that the concept of European civilization was based on a lecture that Husserl pronounced before Vienna in Prague at the Philosophical Congress in 1935, when Jahn Patocka was the secretary of that Congress. But Patocka in the end of his life, participated and I think that in his particular case it was really a genuine connection between the vita contemplativa of a philosopher, who, and this is the Ciceronian advice, should not spend in public space all his life, because this would detract him from his focus on his realm of thought, but in certain moments and situations, in which because of his integrity, he has to step in and to participate in the public discourse and eventually to do what Patocka did, become a spokesperson for the human rights movement of his time.
So, what I would like to do just to give you a couple of hints, the human rights, the perception of the question of human rights in central Europe and especially Charter 77 and Patocka’s, philosophical participation in that progress. Very briefly, we are now in1977, that means the second half of the 70s, in 1975, a so-called Helsinki process started with the final act of the Helsinki Conference and Cold War political realism is very high. No one thought that this would be moments of radical change. That human rights discourse was paid maybe a kind of lip service and no one believed that this would be a real beginning of something.
The process of internationalization of human rights does not create only binding conditions on governments, but individuals are put under the same obligation. This was a strange revolution. I know that we had this fight with legal, law schools in Prague at these times, because the argument was that international agreements are only binding for governments and they don’t constitute rights of individual citizens and in this particular case it was clearly said that these types of agreements have a more universal validity and also for individuals.
In this sense of responsibility our belief in the importance of its conscious public acceptance is given a new expression and it is Charter 77. Charter 77 springs from the background of friendship and solidarity among people who share our concern for those ideals. Charter 77 is not doing politics but seeks to promote general public interest and it is not ready to end participating in political games or in a competition for political power, but only wants to conduct a constructive dialogue. Again, all these terms I have mentioned in the context of Cicero emerged here. Public good is something not only states should be responsible for but also individuals and the readiness to lead public dialogue.
Patocka published a couple of short texts because actually he was almost 70 years old and died exactly in that age a couple weeks after as a spokesperson for Charter 77 after suffering a heart stroke. So many people made this Socratic reference pretty clearly and here comes Patocka’s argument and I think that our central European understanding of current human rights discourse. What is essential here, says Patocka, in the times of instrumental reason, is to find something that is not instrumental. Patocka says that it is morality, something that defines man. It is something that is above all instrumental thinking. What can bring us closer to binding truths?
But, don’t be confused, Patocka does not have this binding truth somewhere in his pockets. It is…anyway, said that this binding truth is this or that, it is only something what is standing before us as an obligation, something to strive for, as a requirement, as a matter of our responsibility that we should respect something that is more than our instrumental strategies and our instrumental behavior. No society, says Patocka, can function without a moral foundation. It is morality that defines what does it mean to be a human being. Then the idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the serenity of moral sentiment, that they recognize something unconditional, that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, and that in their power to establish and maintain a rule of law, they seek to express this recognition.
Patocka says something which is challenging. That states should understand that politics is above law, but law, legality and justice should be higher than politics. This is something what we would have a tendency to recognize in the context of civil society or within a state. In the international arena politics seems to be always above this principle and that’s what was raised not as a position but as a question, as an appeal to dialogue and more politicality. Already Patocka says 108 years ago and it is a clear reference to a moral account. It was in a very precise conceptual analysis proven, made clear, that all moral obligations are rooted in what we might call a personal obligation, to a person’s obligation to himself, the obligation to resist any injustice of a nation.
The interesting thing in this concept is that human rights are not presented here as entitlement, but as a duty and especially as a duty to protect the rights of other people. You are obliged to protest or at least ask the question because no one accepts a cause of justice of a power to make a final decision of authority, but you are right to ask the question. You are right, you have a right and duty to open a dialogue about these matters.
The participants of Charter 77 act, not in pursuit of some covert interest, but simply out of duty, obedient to a commandment that is higher than any political privileges and obligations. Their only firm and genuine foundation is to purify and reinforce the authority of individuals, by virtue of their conscience and of governments by virtue of their signatures on important international treaties. And he says, Patocka says, in a kind of naiveté of a professor of philosophy, and not an experienced international lawyer, the moment when states are ready to sign these important documents speaking about human rights really means a new chapter in human history. That it is an event, an opportunity to step into with this initiative and to raise at least this question and lift to its power and at least up to responsibility human beings have as human beings. This was, I think, in a nutshell what Patocka again, in his typical moderation, rather than as someone who has discovered the way how to understand the whole situation, that it was only stepping into a public space with responsibility and what emerged out of that was a relatively small, but rather resistant community of people later characterized or named cosmopolites and it was actually the beginning of the political process that latched to the one revolution 12 years later.
If I am to think about something like a social contract, in this context, in our tradition in the 20th century, it would be exactly the original text of Charter 77.
The funny thing is the question of who is bound by this contract? Only the 242 people who signed that originally? Or does this contract have bigger ambitions, let’s say to correspond to the fact that there is an entity called mankind, a humanity that emerged in the 20th century.
I don’t want to think too big about our relatively small experiment, but this international element, I think, was very much present there and still I think something what I, myself, or we in Central Europe want and should think about because, obviously, after 1989, this is now a matter of past. We can ask ourselves do we have something like a legacy of this concept–the concept of human rights as a duty and obligation to speak for others–to cultivate the moderation which is an inherent part of any dialogue, to try to overcome differences by creating a space than filling it with your own things and instrumental strategies? I think that this concept is still valid. Unfortunately, maybe tragically, but this is part of our collective experience. These things are not very often endowed with longevity. They are events that appear and then can sink into oblivion. But, I believe that in a way they are still present and this would be my contribution to your question.
Jean Bethke Ehlstain: We now have time for questions and I would ask you, if you have a question to queue up in the center aisle. Minnesota Public Radio is very interested in your questions and that way they will be able to record the question. So, we would ask you to do that and not to get all intimidated. They are very friendly people. So, don’t let the presence of the microphone deter you and I think, Martin, would you prefer just to sit when you respond to the questions?
All right. So, please let’s have the first question. I think Ambassador Palouš also gave you a sense of his life and work as a political philosopher in this lecture as well. Questions coming from the direction of political philosophy would also be welcome. All right. Mieke, you are…you are the intrepid soul who marched first to the mic.
Mieke Holkeboer: I actually wanted some time to formulate it, but will try it. There is a certain way of thinking about human rights, that starts with universal principles and then they get contextualized, sort of as a second step in lots of different places. So, it starts from the universal and it goes to the particular. Toward the end of your lecture, you were talking about the Charter 77 and the ideas, the contributions, that there have been…you know, I know South Africa looked to the Czech Republic and other places for influence… has there been real…a back and forth, a kind of two-way traffic, a way in which the insights that you discovered in Czech Republic have reverberated in other places?
Ambassador Palouš: Well, definitely, there was and actually still is communication in the Central European context for sure. I think that we were quite limited in our ability to outreach and what is interesting, is that even without this direct contact, we never had a chance to share our experience of the situation with others. We found many things in common and together. I remember, actually, you mentioned South Africa; I went there for a meeting on what is public interest legal activities, if you are familiar with the concept. It was in Durbin, and we found out that…actually there is not much difference between our re-discovery of what…civil society and this type of communication and very similar communications out there. So, I think I would be very cautious and really advise myself in moderation, not try to sell our example as “the” example, but especially because of, I would say, people like Patocka, who was a real philosopher and who was always trying to make his arguments in a very elaborated philosophical context. The communication can really cross the borders and I think that even in our multi- cultural environment it would be interesting…you can tell me what is wrong in our perception, are we are still Euro-centrists or is that something what can help us to cross the cultural barriers?
Charter 77 was strange because it was a bunch of people that they didn’t have much in common. There were many disagreements. Human rights was the only platform and it was really based on solidarity, on the mutual assistance in this situation. And I think that this is what the principle is about.
Jean Bethke Ehlstain:Christie.
Questioner: Hello. Thank you for a very stimulating lecture. I actually lived in Slovakia in the Summer of 1990, when it was still part of your country. I was teaching English for the summer and was very interested in the sort of different perceptions of religion among the people that I met there. Some, and this was Slovakia, so there were a number of Catholics who felt this way, seemed to be sort of wanting to reclaim religion. I was asked several times, “are you a believer?” People were very interested in what my personal religion was and then there were some that just said that religion was not part of their past, their upbringing, they didn’t expect it to be part of their future. I remember one day I was teaching class at a sort of public café that overlooked a big street and there were some Western American missionaries, actually, who had rented a van with this large loud speaker and of course, they were proclaiming the gospel in the middle of the street and my students wondered how normal this was in America and how they should think about this. So, the question I…I have kind of two questions that are related for me. Could you tell us something about, sort of the sociology of religion in the Czech Republic today and since the time has passed since the Velvet Revolution; you have given us a description of how these human rights principles played a part in its inception…how do people think about human rights and religion as part of that event now that time has passed as they look back on it as part of their history?
Ambassador Palouš: Well, I think, obviously, religious freedom is a definitive part of human rights discourse, but I would not be too quick and…to say…straightforward to identify this position with any, say positively defined or revealed religious position. This type of religious stance I have in mind is rather Socratic moderation. The ability always to make a distinction between wisdom that is your own human wisdom and something what goes above that. My problem or my question would be definitely part of intercultural dialogue. How far are we able to go beyond the framework of our own thoughts, beliefs, creeds, what we can do to discover some common space with others? I would not be in favor of sort of mixing all, everything together, but I would say open minds and even open minds in the questions where the solution or the ability to find something in common is very difficult. You asked me about sociology of religion. I think that now the situation in the Czech Republic, as in other countries, in many ways have normalized for good and for bad, at the same time. I think that there is a normal situation in a sense that maybe people can create their own networks of communication to communicate about these matters. There are churches, there are religious communities and we, obviously, are central European traditions, but at the same time, I would say the ability to test the borders, to really, to put this Socratic knowledge into practice, maybe it’s now more difficult than it used to be in the past. We have our interreligious fights and discussions. Obviously, there are still different American preachers operating in the Czech Republic. Some of them I think have been quite successful in sending their message out. Some others have been less successful. So, we are definitely a part of that. I would, rather…be looking at the phenomena that…where the religious activities are connected with some, say, humanitarian activities in general. You have organizations that have their religious backgrounds and are active in the field, are trying to reach out, but the situation is central Europe open…rather open society, but central European smallness and certain traditions revived I would say.
Questioner: I wanted to ask you about the role that religion played in the transition out from communism and I wanted to focus specifically on the process and I think that there is a belief, at least, in the literature here that the process is seen as retributive justice, that not only do we want to create an accounting of what happened, but there is also some punishment for collaborators, for those have committed crimes against society and I wanted to know why, in your opinion, the Czech Republic opted for this sort of process and why we didn’t see something more akin to a South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission when, you know, religious leaders seemed to play such an important part in mobilizing civil society against the Czechoslovak regime, which was just really brutal in oppressing religion. And I wanted to know if you thought that the idea of forgiveness in transition from the religious perspective came out in the process or in the period?
Ambassador Palouš: Well, I agree with what you said and openly, quite openly, never agreed with the basic idea of the process as it was presented, because I think we have not been able until today to really solve that question, to bring it into some closure. There was a long discussion in the Czech Republic and still in a way it is an ongoing discussion. On the one hand, obviously, you cannot be indifferent to the past. If you want to be forgiven, I think, truth is important and if the individuals concerned, let’s put it that way, are not ready to do that, then anything like forgiveness or generosity is simply wrong attitudes, but I don’t think that the Czech Republic can be used as an example. I definitely I am saying that now I am asked that question in the context of this Iraqi situation as a positive example. I think that it has something to do and this is really a problem, concerning the nature of a totalitarian regime. A regime that has very powerful capacity of, I would say, annihilation. The distinctions between good and bad are almost eradicated and the idea is to let everything to function without any traces of moral consciousness. So, and, I am afraid that church has not been strong enough, I think, intellectually and in all other ways to inspire in this process with something what could be acceptable. You know the tragedy is that the church itself, I mean Catholic church, had certain records in the 40 years of communism. You know, the church as an institution, is not always able to address this issue in a timely manner. It takes some time.
Questioner: You see that in many other areas, in Eastern European countries, just to survive churches have to compromise.
Ambassador Palouš: Exactly. That is a survival strategy. The responsibility is for the institution and there is sometimes a lack of political judgment. You know there is a certain tradition of central European connection between church and state that I think played here a very important role. The fact that the church never, was not independent, always was in fact, until today, an organization financed from the state budget. We have had the long process of negotiations of how to change that situation, how to really complete the separation of state and church. The church itself is not able to take a real transparent position in that respect. So, I think that there is still something, is in front of us and thus, many questions that will remain with us for years to come and this is actually what totalitarian heritage or legacy is about.
Jean Bethke Ehlstain:If I may just…you are not opposed in principle to punishment for people responsible for particularly egregious and horrific crimes and violations?
Ambassador Palouš: No, punishment is a result of a serious process of law that has to respect basic rules, which means presumption of innocence, the ability to make your case in front of an independent court of justice, and so and so forth, but in this situation…it is difficult.
Jean Bethke Ehlstain: Next
Questioner: Although there are lots of things these days that are straining American/European relations, one of the more persistent ones in the past quarter century has been the issue of the death penalty, capital punishment and I am curious first, whether or not you personally see capital punishment as a human rights issue and second of all, how your country, being your country’s representative here in the United States, how the Czech Republic expresses it considerations on this point in the American government given the host of other types of issues you have to deal with in bilateral and multilateral relations, whether or not it is an issue in conversation and looking downstream whether it will be more or less of one?
Ambassador Palouš: I am not…I would say dogmatic in that respect. I would oppose capital punishment myself. I am not a great fan of it, but I have to admit that if you…it’s part of your, I would say, legal tradition and you can also have historical explanations in how the United States came to existence, how it happened that capital punishment here is still seen as an important instrument of justice. Obviously, my concerns would be, as many people here say, that there are some faults in the system and capital punishment makes them irreversible. So, it is a kind of difficult thing. The Czech Republic, I think, does not do anything special about it in our relations with the United States. We are a member state of the Counsel of Europe and in that situation we signed a European convention and we simply cannot have capital punishment in spite of the fact that I think 60 percent of the Czech population, or even more than that, would be supporting the idea. So, it would not be something going against, I would say, the will of the majority of Czechs to re-introduce the capital punishment. As far as here, I am from time-to-time receiving the requests to support a certain country in the dispute with the United States. There are citizens of other countries waiting here for execution. Some of them Mexicans, I think, have been executed and it is always disputed. Is it a violation of international law or not? So, I think it is, in my view, it is not the most essential thing in our relations. I don’t want to comment on the individual situation of people in that situation. Well, I don’t know what is your opinion on that most recent case, these two snipers from the Washington area. They will be sentenced at some point and my guess is that there will be a death penalty in that case.
Questioner: At some point, though, there seems to be a transition globally from seeing the death penalty as a function of local justice to be an issue of human rights and I was curious…
Ambassador Palouš: I don’t think it is an issue of human rights. It is a part of…it is a penal code. To my best knowledge I don’t think that there is a, I would say, a human right that can limit the enforcement power of certain states. I think that maybe cruel punishment, torture and inhuman treatment is definitely a violation of human rights, but I think that capital punishment per se…
Jean Bethke Ehlstain:It is also an issue about how democratic…if this is an issue that is open to as a method opposed to the popular will or not because if it were, you would have capital punishment in the Czech Republic…you submitted it to a referendum…as you know, in quite a few European countries.
I don’t see anyone else at the microphone, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue if someone wants to stand up at the microphone or we could do it more informally. Anyone else want to put your question on the record. I will then…before we conclude, I want to thank in the back Liz Bukar who has been the person primarily responsible from the Pew Forum staff organizing this event. Barbra Barnett has done a lot of the important leg work and of course, John Carlson keeps us all on our toes. So, I want to thank the three of them, but I especially want to thank my good friend, Ambassador Palouš for being with us today. Thank you very much.
And I am sure if you want to…we are keeping him very busy, but if you want to come up and discuss some issues informally, I am sure he would be quite open to that.