Havel's light outshines Kim's darkness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am


In just a week, the world has witnessed the death of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il. Could there be two state leaders who were less alike - one you might happily drink a beer with, whereas with the other you might not live long enough to finish it?

Here's an interesting thought experiment: try to pinpoint whether the two men had anything in common. Indeed they did: the US invasion of Iraq. That controversial war triggered the deepest soul-searching by the two men.

In To the Castle and Back, his quasi-memoirs, the former Czech president explained why he initially supported the invasion but later, by the same moral principle, he came to oppose it.

'A state is the work of humans, a human being is the work of God,' he wrote. 'Defending human beings is a higher responsibility than respecting the inviolability of a state.'

Toppling Saddam Hussein's murderous regime was therefore morally justified, but the preventable horrors that occurred after the invasion nullified its moral rationale. This section of the book, though it was on Iraq, is a profound discussion on what today we call 'the responsibility to protect', a doctrine used to justify Nato's intervention in Libya.

As for Kim, the North Korean despot, Iraq prompted him to devote what meagre resources his dirt-poor country had to going nuclear. In other words, the survival of the state, no matter how much blood might be spilled, was paramount.

Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, made famous the phrase 'men in dark times', a select group of brave souls who in every age and during the darkest hour, offer humankind a flickering of light and hope - through their deeds or words - that the harshest and most inhuman institutions cannot snub out.

Havel was such a man, fighting against the forces of darkness represented by men like Kim.