Forum 2000 starts with tributes to Liu Xiaobo

The legacy of the late 2010 Nobel Prize winner was recalled at the opening ceremony

The 21st edition of Forum 2000 conference, with the title Strengthening Democracy in Uncertain Times, launched with an opening ceremony at Prague Crossroads, the former St. Anne's Church in Prague's Old Town.

The main theme was a tribute to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who died July 13, 2017, after being denied permission to travel to get treatment for liver cancer.

Venezuelan pianist and human rights activist Gabriela Montero said that music can express what words cannot and that she creates music in the moment reacting to what is happening in the world as an act of empathy. She improvised a piano piece to a video about the life of Liu Xiaobo.

Journalist and activist Xiao Qiang then spoke about the legacy of Liu Xiaobo. Xiao Qiang said that when he arrived in Prague we went to a Chinese restaurant and asked a young Chinese tourist if she knew who Liu Xiaobo was. She did not.

But the speaker was not upset. He said that Liu Xiaobo would long be remembered, among other things for negotiating the safe exit of thousands of student protesters from Tiananmen Square in 1989. He will also be remembered as one of the authors of Charter 08, a human rights declaration modeled on Czechoslovakia's Charter 77, and he will be remembered for an empty chair at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony as well as for his poetry.

He concluded by saying the names of those who imprisoned him and the name of the regime that was responsible would only be remembered as a footnote in the history of Liu Xiaobo.

Forum 2000 was founded by former Czech president Václav Havel, along with Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

Ivan Havel, the brother of the late Václav Havel, said that liberal democracy is endangered from without by authoritarian regimes from the east and from within by erosion of the basic pillars of democracy like freedom of expression; fair, open and competitive elections; rule of law; and fundamental human rights. “We are facing unprecedented terrorism, xenophobia, corruption and similar threats to democracy,” he said.

He also quoted from the nomination letter for Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was supported by Václav Havel and others. The letter said that the efforts of Liu Xiaobo would speed up the day when free speech and other reforms would come to China. “Trust and truth will overcome suspicion and sham,” Ivan Havel said in conclusion.

The opening ended with a jam session of Gabriela Montero and the Cuban band Porno para Ricardo, which performs songs highly critical of the Cuban government.

The conference actually began earlier in the day before the opening ceremony with a panel at the Faculty of Law at Charles University called Changing International Order and the Future of Our Planet. The speakers were Prince Albert II of Monaco and Czech politician Karel Schwarzenberg.

Prince Albert II said that now more than ever people need to step back and come up with novel answers tailored to the challenges of the current, often violent upheavals in the world.

The challenges, he said are due to the convergence of several crises. Economic differences and inequalities seem to be getting bigger, he added. Other problems include increasing weather catastrophes, increasing desertification and migration. “Faced with these challenges, our political tools seem powerless, our traditional forms of analysis seem obsolete, our governments appear to be impotent and our means of action inadequate,” he said.

Decades ago problems seemed to be at the borders, but that is no longer the case. “Complexity and uncertainty seem to have the upper hand,” Prince Albert II said. It is tempting to call for a return to the past, as many movements are doing. “Personally, I don't believe that this option is possible or desirable. We will not abolish the complexity of the world; we will not re-establish its former compartmentalization, and we will not undo the incredible movement to openness, knowledge, and awareness,” he said.

Nation-states are not defunct but in need of some reform, he added.

He addressed the environment as a key issue and pointed out that in addition to being the head of state of Monaco, he runs a nongovernmental organization called the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, which is active on all continents in supporting biodiversity, clean water, and renewable energy.

But states play a vital role in these issues. “States can and must act,” he said, giving Monaco as an example in limiting plastics, establishing protected marine areas and transitioning to renewable energy.

Multilateral organizations also play a role in achieving progress in fighting climate change, he added.

“The dangers in terms of the environment have never been so great. … It is now as you know getting terribly off balance, so much so that the scenario of business, as usual, is not only becoming indefensible but cannot be considered as an option. What we need to invent is a new sustainable way forward,” he said, warning of the dangers of indifference.

Karel Schwarzenberg stressed the importance of states and also of civil society. Another important factor is political parties. NGOs and the press can create pressure, but it is in the parties where decisions are made. He said that it was necessary to influence the whole political system to create change and not just small political parties where people all agree.

He also urged people to take part in the process of protecting nature and the environment. “Engage, please. Wherever you are, in your village, in your town … whenever there is a discussion and such themes are mentioned. Don't think things happen by themselves. [It happens] only if you move things,” he said, adding that only then will political parties and political leaders realize it is a real issue.

“You have to start the pressure in your country, throughout your village, throughout your town. … That is the main message I want to give out of my experience,” he said.

He concluded saying he felt sorry for his grandchildren because they were seeing a very different world than the one he did when he was young.

The forum continued Monday with panels on the challenges to democracy, whether democracy was too old for young people, and the rise of authoritarianism, among other topics.

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