June 4 marked the 18th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, when Chinese thugs cracked down on a fledgling pro-democracy movement. The movement was effectively buried, and it has never risen from that grave. So it was an appropriate day to open the Prague Democracy & Security Conference and to remember those who still live in captivity and fear around the world.
Gathered together with former prisoners of conscience Václav Havel and Natan Sharansky, along with former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, were dissidents from 17 states; they were young and old, veterans of horrible prisons, and many still living on the edge in places where their lives are constantly at risk. These brave souls from places like Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China, along with academics and politicians from five continents, came to press forward democracy-building in our time — in a city where democracy was once only a pipe-dream and in a room where the Warsaw Pact itself was dissolved.
They don’t think of themselves as wild-eyed radicals or permanently naïve and aging hippies. The carefully deliberated message was one of responsibility, as well as urgency. Senator Joe Lieberman, whose wife Hadassah was born in Prague and whose family of Holocaust survivors emigrated to America before the Communist stranglehold was complete, described the participants as fighters who believed in the transformative power of freedom, justice, and democracy. He insisted they were on the right side of history. Lieberman challenged both moral relativists among Democrats and isolationist Republicans when he took issue with those who question putting a national commitment to freedom at the center of American foreign policy.
The president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, blasted the often prevailing wisdom that belonging to a democratic club was an entitlement and not a privilege. Membership itself confers legitimacy where none may be deserved. Then he pointed the finger directly at Russia and insisted that principled isolation of wayward states must be a serious option. Why, he asked, should we tolerate Russia’s membership in the G-8 when its president threatens to target its neighbors militarily? Ilves also asked the central question among a group with many Europeans and Americans: Will we democracies stand by each other?
Natan Sharansky, former Soviet prisoner and Israeli politician, pleaded for two fundamental requisites: moral clarity and conditionality — the need to link economic ties with the protection of democratic rights and freedoms.
In a single night, they fashioned a light at the end of a dark tunnel. The plan? Democracies must: