THE FOUNDING OF the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA) opened in Prague on 19 October in an atmosphere of excitement and enthusiasm—due in part to the presence of Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel—and ended two days later amid some confusion as to what kind of structure the HCA should have in the future and its potential effectiveness. Approximately 1,000 delegates and journalists attended. The HCA, an initiative whose founding document is “The 1990 Prague Appeal—Let us Found a Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly,“ is based on the 1975 Helsinki Accords which commits the 35 countries of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to observe a set of basic legal principles and human rights now known as the Helsinki Process.
The opening session included speeches by Havel and Oskar Lafontaine (Socialist Party candidate for Chancellor in the FRG), but perhaps the most challenging speech came from Roshan Dhunjiboy, a journalist and film maker from Pakistan. Dhunjiboy said that, coming from a developing country, she remained skeptical about all the talk of a new Europe. “Is this new Europe really going to attempt to end the process of de-colonization? For in fact, cultural and psychological de-colonization has still not taken place,” she said.
Dhunjiboy urged Europeans and North Americans to wean themselves of consumerism and to learn a new, modest way of life, and she warned that peace in Europe did not mean the end of the arms trade to other countries. She also requested the Western media to change their source of information. “The media’s image of our people is an image which comes from a white male—it is an interpretation, not a dialogue,” said Dhunjiboy. It is rather ironic that at precisely this point in her speech, she had to stop and introduce the late arrival of Lafontaine as a team of reporters and cameramen followed him to the podium.
Havel spoke about his struggle against a totalitarian regime-struggling more for the cause itself rather than out of conviction that it might be successful. “People told us that we were naive, that the spirit can’t overcome brutal force. Nonetheless, truth has prevailed and the spirit has overcome,” said Havel. “But however hard it was to destroy the old system, it is even more difficult to build on this desert—this divided land-a new, better and more democratic one.” He emphasized the use of the Helsinki Process: “The Process has already played a significant role in liberating parts of Europe. But it’s not just historic—it’s time now for it to assume new dynamics and become even more significant.” Rather than the concept of citizenship, he felt that the basis for a new Europe should be one of an open citizens’ society.
Galina Starovojtova, a member of the Congress of People’s Deputies in the USSR, warned participants of a fascist reaction to the recent events in Europe and of a spiritual apathy. She asked that people be open to working with and learning from ex-Communists and that within the Assembly a place must be open to them as well.
Mient Jan Faber, co-chairman of the HCA, emphasised that the priority of the Assembly was not to come up with answers but was to participate in citizen’s initiatives, in civil society itself. The Assembly was supposed to represent those people who are willing to take personal responsibility for a public cause and institutions which are open, social and community-oriented, and which foster cross-relations among different social movements.
THE CONTINUING DISCUSSION of whether or not civil society can be in power-as seems to be the case in some East European countries now—or whether that violates the very definition of civil society was debated by Jaroslav Sabata from Czechoslovakia and Tomaz Mastnak from Yugoslavia. Mastnak maintained that civil society is distinct and separate from the state and must have its own institutions. Sabata maintained that civil society is now represented in parliament and that creating new institutions would only be creating an artificial separation.
The Assembly had five major themes which were further broken down into working sub-commissions. The five themes were: demilitarisation and peace politics; economy and ecology; nationalism and confederal structures; human rights, including minority rights and civil society; and the institutional process of European integration. A sixth theme-a women’s commission—was later proposed for future Assemblies.
DURING THE CLOSING session, summarized reports were given by participants from the various sub-commissions. Christine Merkel from Pax Christi/Netherlands reported that the commission on demilitarisation had proposed that the CSCE countries create and follow a code of conduct, which would include a ban on nuclear testing and making ownership of nuclear weapons a crime. Sonja Licht from Yugoslavia said that all the sub-commissions within the economy commission had proposed that there be an official HCA representative at the CSCE summit in Paris on November 23. The Baltic states made clear their desire to participate on a federal level at the CSCE conference. However this was not officially accepted by the Assembly-a deep disappointment for the participants from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
MARGARITA PAPANDREOU, SPEAKING on behalf of the women’s sub-commission (within the human rights commission) reported that many women felt marginalised. Although there was a women’s meeting in the programme, it was scheduled at the same time as the working group sessions, forcing women to have to chose between attending sub-commission workshops and the women’s meeting. Papandreou asked, “Is civil society in this HCA a patriarchal one or is it something else? Unfortunately it reflects almost exclusively how male members function. Women have had a little difficulty here due to the lack of issues addressing women’s status in civil society. Women’s proposals should be heard, examined, debated and their participation guaranteed.” Approximately one-third of the delegates were women, guest speakers making up even less than that.
Reporting for the minority rights sub-commission, Willemena Ruijgrok of the Netherlands thanked the HCA for allowing gay and lesbian input into the conference: “We know that there was much discussion beforehand about the issue of gay and lesbian rights being included within the scope of human rights. So we thank you because what you gave us is the very thing you are asking from your own governments: the right to be heard.”
MARY KALDOR FROM the U.K. warned in a closing speech of a new kind of Cold War developing between consumerism and fundamentalism. She urged the HCA to develop a citizens’ network to resist this trend.
A lot of questions remain unanswered with the HCA. A draft report was made on the proposed structure, but in the closing ceremony it was clear that not everyone necessarily agreed with the proposal. Nonetheless, further assemblies will take place and in the meantime an International Coordinating Committee will begin the task of further developing the Assembly Process. Among the many issues to be addressed is how non-HCA countries can become involved and whether or not ‘power-holders’ can play a role in organizations supporting the Process.
IT IS ALSO NOT CLEAR if this Assembly really reflects “détente from below.” Often the speeches of the præsidium were too long and the commissions too large, which hindered opportunities for dialogue or discussion. When asked during a press conference about the relationship and/or overlap between the END Convention and the HCA, a pat answer was given that the two need not compete with each other-END being more directed towards Peace Movements and HCA working in perhaps the broader realm of human rights. However, this undoubtedly remains a question for many participants.
In spite of all the confusion and complaints, it was still quite remarkable that the Assembly could take place. Only two years ago when Charter 77 held a seminar in Prague to discuss the possibility of establishing a forum to support the Helsinki process from below, their meeting was broken up by the police who expelled the foreign participants and detained some of the Czechs. As Václav Havel put it, “strange things have since happened.”