The following is the address given by President Václav Havel to the Canadian Senate and the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 29. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was then in its sixth week. The Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, had recently become members of the alliance, but in Prague, the bombing was not popular: according to recent polls, only 35 percent of the population supported it. The Czech prime minister, Miloš Zeman, compared the conflict to “cavemen throwing rocks” and asked whether the Czech Republic had joined NATO to protect itself from Yugoslavia. Moreover, the Czech government was vacillating on sending ground troops to the Balkans. Havel publicly called his government’s lack of commitment “an embarrassment.”

In his address to the Canadian parliament, retranslated here, Havel offers a reasoned explanation for his support of NATO. But it is more than that. While Havel’s remarks reflect his own thinking, they also draw on discussions over the past several months within the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the current minister, Jan Kavan, and his deputy minister, Martin Palouš, are both veterans of the struggle for democracy in Czechoslovakia) on how to turn the lessons of their country’s experience with totalitarianism into a moral force in the post-cold war world. These discussions make a clear distinction between “national interests” and the higher principle of human rights. When support for human rights is seen instrumentally—that is, merely as a device to be used in the pursuit of a country’s broader national interest—it leads at best to inconsistent and often ineffective application. For Havel, the war in Yugoslavia is a landmark in international relations: the first time that the human rights of a people—the Kosovo Albanians—have unequivocally come first.

—Paul Wilson

There is every indication that the glory of the nation-state as the culmination of every national community’s history, and its highest earthly value—the only one, in fact, in the name of which it is permissible to kill, or for which people have been expected to die—has already passed its peak.

It would seem that the enlightened efforts of generations of democrats, the terrible experience of two world wars—which contributed so much to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and the evolution of civilization have finally brought humanity to the recognition that human beings are more important than the state.

In this new world, people—regardless of borders—are connected in millions of different ways: through trade, finance, property, and information. Such relationships bring with them a wide variety of values and cultural models that have a universal validity. It is a world, moreover, in which a threat to some has an immediate impact on everyone, in which for many reasons, chiefly the enormous advances in science and technology, our individual destinies are merging into a single destiny, in which all of us—whether we like it or not—must begin to bear responsibility for everything that occurs. In such a world, the idol of state sovereignty must inevitably dissolve.

Clearly, blind love for one’s own country—a love that defers to nothing beyond itself, that excuses anything one’s own state does only because it is one’s own country, yet rejects everything else only because it is different—has necessarily become a dangerous anachronism, a source of conflict and, in extreme cases, of immense human suffering.

In the next century I believe that most states will begin to change from cultlike entities charged with emotion into far simpler and more civilized entities, into less powerful and more rational administrative units that will represent only one of the many complex and multileveled ways in which our planetary society is organized.

With this transformation, the idea of noninterference—the notion that it is none of our business what happens in another country and whether human rights are violated in that country—should also vanish down the trapdoor of history.

But what will become of the many functions now performed by the state?

Let us look first at the emotional role the state plays in our lives. In my opinion this should be redistributed among the other areas that shape our identity. By this I mean the different levels of what we perceive to be our proper home and our natural world: our families, the companies we work for, the communities we live in, the organizations we belong to, and our region, our profession, our church, all the way to our continent and ultimately our earth, the planet we inhabit. All of these are the different environments in which our identities are formed and in which we live our lives. And if our bond to the state, which has become so hypertrophied, is to weaken, then it must be weakened in ways that benefit all those other levels of our identity.


The practical responsibilities of the state—its legal powers—can only devolve in two directions, downward or upward: downward, to the nongovernmental organizations and structures of civil society; or upward, to regional, transnational, and global organizations. This transfer of powers has already begun and, in some cases, it has come a long way. In other areas, it is less advanced. But clearly this process is underway, and it must continue to advance in both directions.

If modern democratic states are usually defined by qualities such as their respect for human rights and liberties, the equality their citizens enjoy, and the existence of a civil society, then the condition toward which humanity will, and in the interests of its own survival must, move will probably be characterized by a universal or global respect for human rights, by universal civic equality and the rule of law, and by a global civil society.

One of the greatest problems in the creation of nation-states was their geographical definition and the determination of their borders. Many factors went into this—ethnic, cultural, geographic, and military.

The creation of larger regional and transnational communities will sometimes be burdened with the same problems, some of which will be inherited from the participating nation-states. But we must do everything we can to ensure that the evolution away from the dominance of the nation-state will not be as painful as the creation itself of those nation-states has been in our history.

Allow me to give you an example. Canada and the Czech Republic are now allies because we are both members of the North Atlantic Alliance. This is the consequence of an important historical process—the expansion of the alliance to include the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It is the first serious and historically irreversible step toward the elimination of the iron curtain, and a dismantling—in deeds, not just words—of the arrangements that came out of the Yalta Agreement.

The expansion of NATO, as we all know, was not easy. It only became a reality ten years after the end of the cold war and the bipolar division of the world. One of the many reasons this process was so difficult was opposition to it from the Russian Federation, which questioned, anxiously and with incomprehension, why the West was expanding and moving closer to Russia, without embracing Russia itself. Disregarding any other motives it may have had, Russia’s position reveals one very interesting thing: uncertainty about where what we might call the world of Russia, or the East, begins and ends. When NATO offers Russia a hand in partnership, it does so on the assumption that there are two large and equal entities involved: the Euro-Atlantic World and a vast Euro-Asian power. These two entities can, and must, extend their hands to each other and cooperate because it is in the interest of the whole world. But they can only do so if they are aware of their own identities: in other words, if they know where each of them begins and ends. Historically, Russia has always had a slight problem with this, and it is clearly bringing this problem with it into the present world, where the crucial question is no longer where a particular nation-state begins or ends, but where a particular region of culture or civilization begins or ends.

Indeed, there are a thousand things that link Russia to the Euro-Atlantic world or the West, but there are also a thousand ways in which they differ—just as Latin America, Africa, the Far East, or other regions or continents differ from one another. The fact that these worlds, or parts of the world, differ from one another does not mean that one of them is any more worthy than another. They are all equal. It is just that they are also somewhat unlike one another. There is no shame in being different. Russia deems it immensely important to be seen as a major player, one that deserves special treatment as a world power. At the same time, it is uncomfortable with being perceived as a separate entity, one that cannot easily be considered part of another entity.

Yet even Russia is coming to terms with the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance and one day it will come to accept it. Let us hope that when it does, such acceptance will not be merely an expression of Engels’s “recognition of necessity,” but of a new and deeper understanding of itself. Just as other countries must learn to redefine themselves in this new multicultural and multipolar world, so must Russia. It cannot continue to substitute megalomania, or self-regard, for a natural self-confidence, but must also understand where it begins and ends. It must understand, for example, that Siberia, with its enormous spaces and immense natural resources, is properly a part of Russia, but that tiny Estonia is not, and never will be, and that if Estonia feels it belongs to the world represented by the North Atlantic Alliance or the European Union, then this must be understood and respected, not seen as an expression of hostility.


I have tried to demonstrate that the world of the twenty-first century—if humanity succeeds in withstanding the perils it has concocted for itself—will be a world of ever closer and more equitable cooperation between larger, mostly supranational, entities, sometimes embracing entire continents. For such a world to come into being, each individual entity and sphere of culture and civilization must be clearly aware of its own identity, must understand what makes it distinct from the others, and accept that its difference is not a handicap but merely a highly specific contribution to the richness and variety of the global community. Of course, the same thing must be understood by those who, on the contrary, have a tendency to regard their own “otherness” as grounds for feelings of superiority.

One of the most important organizations in which all states and all large supranational entities can meet for debate and discussion on equal terms, and which makes countless important decisions that concern the whole world, is the United Nations.

I feel that if the UN is to carry out the tasks the next century will impose on it, it must undergo significant reform. The Security Council, the most important body in the UN, cannot continue to preserve the status it was accorded when the UN was created. It must now reflect more accurately today’s multipolar world. We have to reconsider whether it is still appropriate, even hypothetically, that in the Security Council one country can outvote the rest of the world. We have to reconsider which of the large, powerful, and populous countries should now be permanently represented on it, and rethink the pattern of rotation for nonpermanent members, and many other things as well.

We must make the immense structure of the UN less bureaucratic and more effective. We have to think of ways to achieve genuine flexibility in decision-making, above all in the General Assembly. Most important of all, we must ensure that all the citizens of the world see the UN as their organization, an organization that truly belongs to them, and not as an elite club of governments. After all, what this organization does for the inhabitants of our planet is more important than what it does for individual countries as states. For this reason, the methods of financing the UN should probably also be reformed, along with how declarations are acted upon and enforced. This is not a matter of abolishing the powers of the member states and establishing something like a world-wide superstate. It means ensuring that not all issues shall forever be handled exclusively by individual countries or their governments. In the interests of humanity, its freedoms, its rights, and its very life, more channels need to be created through which the decisions of UN representatives flow back to citizens, and through which citizens may let their will be known to their representatives. This would mean more balance, and broader mutual accountability.

I hope it is clear that I am not against the institution of the state as such. It would, in any case, be somewhat absurd for the head of one state to plead for the abolition of the state before the representative bodies of another state.

I’m talking about something else, about the fact that there exists something of higher value than the state. That value is humanity. As we know, the state exists to serve people, not the other way around. If an individual serves his or her country, then he or she should be expected to serve it only to the extent necessary to allow the state to serve all its citizens well. Human rights are superior to the rights of states. Human freedoms represent a higher value than state sovereignty. International law protecting the unique human being must be ranked higher than international law protecting the state.

If our destinies are now merging into a single destiny, if each of us bears responsibility for the future of all of us, then no one, not even a country, can limit anyone’s right to exercise this responsibility in a real way. Individual countries must gradually abandon a foreign policy category that, so far, has usually been critical to their thinking: the category of “national interests.” “National interests” are more likely to divide us than bring us together. Clearly, each country has its own particular interests, and it is by no means necessary to abandon those interests that are legitimate. But we must acknowledge that there is something beyond these interests: the principles we espouse. Principles, in any case, unite us more often than they divide us. It is through principles that we measure the legitimacy or the illegitimacy of our interests. It is not, I think, proper when a country proclaims it to be in the interests of “the state” to uphold a particular principle. Principles must be honored and upheld in and for themselves, on principle, as it were. Only then can our interests be derived from them.

For example, it would not be proper for me to say that it is in the Czech Republic’s interest that there be a just peace in the world. On the contrary, the principle of just peace in the world must come first, and the interests of the Czech Republic must be subordinated to that.

The alliance to which Canada and now the Czech Republic belong is waging a struggle against the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic. This struggle is neither easy nor popular and we can differ on its strategies and tactics. But there is one thing no reasonable person can deny: this is probably the first war that has not been waged in the name of “national interests,” but rather in the name of principles and values. If one can say of any war that it is ethical, or that it is being waged for ethical reasons, then it is true of this war. Kosovo has no oil fields to be coveted; no member nation in the alliance has any territorial demands on Kosovo; Milosovic does not threaten the territorial integrity of any member of the alliance. And yet the alliance is at war. It is fighting out of concern for the fate of others. It is fighting because no decent person can stand by and watch the systematic, state-directed murder of other people. It cannot tolerate such a thing. It cannot fail to provide assistance if it is within its power to do so.

This war places human rights above the rights of the state. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was attacked by the alliance without a direct mandate from the UN. This did not happen irresponsibly, as an act of aggression or out of disrespect for international law. It happened, on the contrary, out of respect for the law, for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the sovereignty of states. The alliance has acted out of respect for human rights, as both conscience and international legal documents dictate.

This is an important precedent for the future. It has been clearly said that it is simply not permissible to murder people, to drive them from their homes, to torture them, and to confiscate their property. What has been demonstrated here is the fact that human rights are indivisible and that if injustice is done to one, it is done to all.

I have often asked myself why human beings have any rights at all. I always come to the conclusion that human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world. These values are as powerful as they are because, under certain circumstances, people accept them without compulsion and are willing to die for them, and they make sense only in the perspective of the infinite and the eternal. I am deeply convinced that what we do, whether it be in harmony with our conscience, the ambassador of eternity, or in conflict with it, can only finally be assessed in a dimension that lies beyond that world we can see around us. If we did not sense this, or subconsciously assume it, there are some things that we could never do.

Allow me to conclude my remarks on the state and its probable role in the future with the assertion that, while the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God.

Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

This Issue

June 10, 1999