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COMMENTS 

An interview with the President of the European Court of Human Rights

Dean Spielmann, President of the European Court of Human Rights since September 2012, has served as a Judge in the Court for over a decade. In a recent interview with the UCL Law Society’s Silk v. Brief, highlights of which are condensed in the blog post below, he discusses the evolving role of human rights in Europe, and explores the complicated relationship between the UK and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Dean Spielmann
23 March 2015 More...

Starts: Mar 23, 2015 12:00:00 AM

In Defence of Rights

Philippe Sands, Professor of Law at UCL and practising barrister in international law, and Helena Kennedy, a leading barrister and academic in human rights law, civil liberties and constitutional issues, were members of the 2011 Commission on a Bill of Rights. In highlights from a recent article in the London Review of Books, they discuss how human rights intersect with politics, examine the UK’s strained relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights, and question the possible motivations lying behind the proposed Bill.
Prof. Philippe Sands 
Helena Kennedy
1 April 2015 More...

Starts: Apr 1, 2015 12:00:00 AM

Exploring ‘Exploratory Governance': the Hertie Governance Report 2015

With the Eurozone crisis not yet over, Albert Weale, Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at UCL, reviews the Hertie Governance Report 2015 as it analyses the key issues facing the European Institutions in terms of economic governance. As ad hoc solutions are found to deal with urgent matters, what does this mean for political accountability and reform in the EU, and what lessons have been learnt?
Prof. Albert Weale
14 April 2015 More...

Starts: Apr 14, 2015 12:00:00 AM

Reflections on the Death of Václav Havel: Havel Today

Publication date: Dec 21, 2011 03:15 PM

Start: Dec 21, 2011 12:00 AM
End: Mar 20, 2012 12:00 AM

Tim Beasley-Murray, 21 Dec 2011 


Tim Beasley-Murray
Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture
UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies


Václav Havel’s essay of 1987, ‘The Story and Totalitarianism’, opens with the following anecdote:

‘A friend of mine, who had serious problems with asthma, was sentenced for political reasons to several years in prison.  In prison he suffered greatly because his cellmates were smokers and he could not breathe properly.  All his requests to be transferred to a cell of non-smokers fell on deaf ears.  His health was seriously in danger, indeed his life was at risk.  An American woman, who found out about the situation, wanted to help and telephoned an acquaintance, the editor of an influential newspaper, asking if he might be able to write an article about the situation.  The editor replied, “Ring me when he’s dead.”’

Czechoslovak asthma isn’t enough of a story for the Western editor.  ‘We are not worthy of attention because we don’t have stories and we don’t have death.  We just have asthma.  And who wants to hear our stereotypical coughing?’ Totalitarianism, Havel argues, neutralizes the drama of stories and it makes everyday suffering into something normal and unexceptional.

Now that Havel is dead, it is worth asking what sort of story his death makes.  Havel’s death is the cause of great sadness, in Prague and around the world. And yet, long expected and undramatic, it does not appear to be much of a news story, rather one of the final melancholy pages of a certain chapter of history. (In addition to Havel, this year has seen the death of a number of his comrades in dissidence and power, including Jiří Dienstbier and Jiří Gruša.  That is to say: a generation is passing.) That mortality is kind to no one and has no respect for goodness and reputation is shown by the swift and unceremonious way that Havel’s death was replaced on the front pages by the death of another, very different sort of political leader.

Havel’s insight into the relationship between power and stories does not hold for totalitarianism only.  One way that all regimes, totalitarian or not, legitimate themselves is by conferring the appearance of normality on suffering, injustice and inequality.  Power says: ‘there’s no story here; this is just the way that things are.’ As thinker, writer and reluctant politician, Havel sought to revive and cultivate the power of stories everywhere.  He insisted that one must write about asthma, ‘not despite the fact that people are not dying of it, but exactly because they are not dying of it’.  In so doing, he was instrumental in co-writing the most miraculous and unexpected story that Europe has ever heard: the story of citizens taking back power for themselves.

What is happening in the world today, the asthmatic wheezing of a bankrupt capitalist system, is not normal and not natural.  As the achievements of sixty years of peaceful cooperation in Western Europe - and twenty years of similar working together of West and East - are threatened by an economic and political crisis no one seems to be able to solve, Havel words in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ are as relevant they were in 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia: ‘Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible.’  Concepts and practices like adhocracy, anti-politics, but above all a renewal of a democratic sense of responsibility, may be needed more than ever in a world where traditional politics seem so ineffective.  (It is encouraging to see elements of these ideas and ways of doing things - although one must perhaps express this with reservations - in the ‘Occupy’ movement, in the Arab Spring, and in opposition to Putin in Russia.)

The challenge, then, is to make Havel’s death not only the cause of sadness and an opportunity for commemoration, as a great man passes in history, but also to make it a story: a new(s) story that would tell – in Havelian terms - of ‘the art of the impossible’, of ‘the rehabilitation of human uniqueness, human action and the human spirit’, and that would put freely acting men and women at its dramatic centre.  A story of Havel today.