Ceremony: Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent

Garry Kasparov:

It is a great honor for me, but also a sad reminder, to be here in a role once held by one of my great heros, Václav Havel. He was truly an inspirational figure, who inspires me and all of us in our everyday work.

When Václav Havel died, followed almost simultaneously by the death of Kim Jong Il, the resulting media coverage was infuriating. And not only because every pundit was discussing what would happen in North Korea, but because everyone was wondering who would be the replacement for Kim Jong Il and no one was wondering who would be the moral replacement for Václav Havel.

I first met Václav Havel in 1990, when at a conference for Soviet dissidents. And I last saw him in 2007, and while he was not at his best, his eyes were very sharp when it came to discussion of Vladmir Putin. He saw evil, and that’s what he called it. He said, Ronald Reagan also negotiated with the Soviets, and talked about arms, but every time, also the dissidents. And for emphasis, Havel tossed his menu onto the table.

Havel understood better than anyone that art was impossible for dictators to understand. Its about the expression of feelings, and about sharing these feelings across cultures, across languages, and across settings.

And this award, its figure is a representative of the Goddess of Democracy, the statue built by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square. And while the statue was destroyed after only days, this statue is in its memory.

Our honorees today have shown not only courage, but passion and humor, that exposes the inhumanity of dictatorship. And Ai Wei Wei, Manal al Sharif, and Aung San Suu Kyi have their own ways to show that they are human.

Every dictatorship is trying to show justification for its existence. And their best strategy is to talk about tradition. They talk about their traditions, they talk about old ways, not welcoming to democratic values. But we, here, accept only one tradition. That all of us are equal.

And I thank them for their courage and inspiration, and the qualities they have shown, the qualities that evoke the spirit of Václav Havel.

And now I’d like to invite to the stage the former President of Romania, and more importantly, a very close friend of Václav Havel.

Five months ago, I was at the Prague cathedral, just as a family friend, now attending the funeral of Václav Havel. We considered ourselves a special family: the first elected presidents after the collapse of the communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe, not coming from the political sphere, but from within the civil society intelligentsia.

For over two decades, Havel was in my mind. His presidential state visit, when the state dinner was replaced by a comfortable meal with artists and writers in a bohemian restaurant. His appeals on the behalf of those who would struggle for human rights, where his name was always the first to sign.

Havel was always during his life a symbol. First, the embodiment of creative freedom, imprisoned by the communist dictatorship. Then, the release. And finally, the creation of a different policy, a policy based on moral values.

I believe that the awarding of this prize, the Václav Havel prize for creative dissent, is the best way to honor his memory. And that his spirit feels more at home here, in this little theatre in Oslo, than at any great palace.

Mourning has been described as a schedule that the departed leaves to the left. It is not easy to live under the clear skies of Havel’s ideas. But any attempt to live as such is a true tribute that we can bring to the great departed.

The Human Rights Foundation’s choice of the Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei was inspired. The impact of an artist or a writers positions in public opinion is very high, as people identify themselves with artists and writers, rather than politicians.

I don’t know how many people remember that the famous Chapter 77 anti-communist movement promoted by Havel was originally a protest against the closing of the jazz department of Prague University.

And now, creativity plays an even more important role. The video you are about to watch reveals the personality of the great artist Ai Wei Wei and his struggle for democracy and human rights.

Ai Wei Wei:

[via video] 

I’m an artist based in Beijing, and I’m honored to receive this award. My status now is as a criminal suspect, living now on bail. Last year for no clear reason the government arrested me for 81 days. So now, I am not allowed to receive journalists, go on the internet, or write any kind of articles. I cannot travel and I must stay in Beijing.

I grew up in this nation, and since my father’s generation, the intellectuals, the artists, the writers, have sacrificed their lives to have freedom of speech and very basic human rights. And unfortunately today, in our condition, not much has changed. To freely speak out here is to face criminal charges. Still many people are arrested and put in jail, only because they have different thinking and ideas.

As an artist, my work is to express myself, my understanding of my surroundings, and communicate with the audience or the viewers. I’m always trying to find new ways to reach out and communicate, whether through the internet or any other possible means.

And that’s what brings me here today. And has caused me all sorts of problems. But I’m still here, and I will continue my struggle, until I can have this freedom.

Most of my work is based on how I grew up, but it also reflects my time in New York, about ten years. And this combination of the early experience with the communist, crude treatment makes me understand my responsibility and it makes me understand what art and creativity can do. I think that people in New York are living in very different conditions, very different backgrounds.

But we have to respect human rights and freedom of speech, to build a lawful society, to protect those very basic rights. Because we all share those values, and only by doing that we can have a better world.

It’s not easier to be more creative in a liberal society, but its necessary for artists and writers to react to this current condition. They’re doing something to build a better society, and they’re doing something for those who have never had the chance or the opportunity to speak for themselves.

I want to thank you for this and recognize we share our values with a lot of people. The struggle is really related to their life, and we always have to have this idea of universal values, shared values, by everyone in the world.

I’m very proud I have this Havel prize, because Havel is very respected in China, among intellectuals. He’s known for his resistance and his courage, which offers a great understanding of this kind of struggle, which is always very much respected in China.

Garry Kasparov: 

We’re talking about creative dissent and we understand that in closed societies, even the tiniest violation of rules and restrictions can lead to severe consequences, and dictators are very vigilant to make sure that people always follow the rules.

So even a step right and a step left, that could lead to the collapse of the system, to the point where I could be arrested for wearing a white ribbon. And our next honoree did something that, in most countries in the world, is just an act of daily behavior. Her filming herself driving a car is a direct challenge to the rules of Saudi Arabia, and a great challenge to the greater Arab world.

Manal al-Sharif:

I’m really honored, and I’d like to thank the Human Rights Foundation. For me, seeing that the other two laureates are not here today, I know that I don’t deserve this prize. It’s not about me, I represent the struggle of another 11 million back home, and their families too. And their struggle to be in the driver’s seat of their own destiny, their own life.

I’m fascinated, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, security comes at the bottom, and creativity comes at the top. So that creative dissidents could exist, like Ai Wei Wei, this is amazing to me. I don’t consider myself a dissident, I had to actually ask what it was.

Havel said, ‘We never decided to be dissents, we were transformed into them, without ever quite knowing how. We sometimes ended up in prison, without ever knowing how. There are things in life, you don’t choose them, they choose you.’

But [in Arabic] the rain starts with a single drop.

Garry Kasparov:

An amazing confession. We all know that driving your own destiny is the greatest crime in the eyes of dictators, because it means that you are free.

We will now introduce another woman, a laureate, who became a symbol. And proved that one women, isolated from the rest of the world, could stand firm in the ground of her beliefs. And we can see now that she is gaining more ground. She is winning her battle. With this, I’m truly honored to announce Aung San Suu Kyi.


One of the figures Václav Havel always admired, even in the 1990s, was Aung San Suu Kyi, and I shared his esteem. A few years ago, the Czech ambassador to Bucharest arranged a screening of a documentary about Aung San Suu Kyi. And I had the chance to talk to them about the hard fight under the dictator’s regime, and our own fight against military dictatorship.

Aung San Suu Kyi won our most important prize, the Nobel Prize. I wondered, would another prize mean anything? I think it would. Because Aung San Suu Kyi has taken another step forward. By being elected to her party, she’s taken a first step. I remember, I used a Havel phrase, ‘the power of the powerless.’ Those who are able to use this power, and use it with power and dignity, is what we hope for Aung San Suu Kyi in the near future.

Aung San Suu Kyi:

I’d like to thank you with my heart because it gives me the opportunity to speak of a unique human being, someone I’ve always admired and will continue to admire. He was unique because he cared for humanity. He gave us hope when we were struggling. He not only gave us hope, he gave us ideas. He taught us how to carry out our struggle, how to handle the challenge of dissent, wisely and creatively. He knew about dissent, personally and practically. He was engaged in the work of dissent. He understood what it meant as an individual, and as a whole.

If it is to be more than just a new variation on a new generation, it must be an expression of life. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact, the opposite is true. Only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.

We in Burma and elsewhere, where we are trying to create better lives for ourselves, have learned so much from him. We have learned about living in truth, and we have learned about empowering the powerless. He was an unusual man; not only did he care for other dissidents, but he cared for us, sensitively and creatively, even after he became head of state.

He was a man who lived in accordance with his ideas. His heart never changed, even when his position of status did. His heart was forever renewing his creativity, and this inspires us to keep renewing our creativity as we struggle in our own dissent.

Without men and women like Václav Havel, the world would be a less inspiring place. It is because of men and women like him that we have strength to go on, and the conviction that change can be brought about.

As I thank you, may I say that we in Burma have come to a point in our history, where we have been given a chance in our history, where we may change our society, creatively and positively. And I hope that all of you will remember us in our efforts, remembering how Václav Havel would have stood with us, would have been with us, if he had been alive. And even though he is no longer with us, I believe that his spirit is with us; and we will continue along the path that he laid out for all creative dissenters.

We shall continue along that path, confident that we too, will achieve our goal, as Czechoslovakia, as it was known then, achieved its goal. We, and all other peoples in the world who wish to create better societies for ourselves, will always remember Václav Havel as a shining light in the history of the world.

  • Eli_Lake

    You better call your forum Israel Firster United. Or Israel Firsters Official Circle Jerk.