Cultural Diplomacy, a Tool for Promoting and Protecting

Human Rights[1]


Emil Constantinescu


Why is cultural diplomacy called to cooperate for the protection of human rights and why ICD got involved in a topic as complex as the Human Rights Protection & International Law?

This is precisely because “human rights” is a complex concept, perceived and understood differently, in different national or regional cultures; and because international interventions of the classical diplomacy based on political, economic and military pressures in many of the cases, have not proved successful.


This is why an appeal to history and, in particular, to the experience gained by people who freed from communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe during the last decade of the 20th century, can be useful.


At the end of the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly adopted and signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document with universal vocation, meant to defend the real values of  humanity. Only few would have suspected that this document and its principles would be brutally violated in the communist countries. But what caused such an attitude?


The answer lies in the contrast between the surface politics of those states and the new communist ideology that they had adopted. The utopia of equal rights, the elimination of a constructive competition, the removal of the right to freedom of speech  have led to the emergence of an amorphous form, which claimed itself society; here  ideology replaces  feeling, the freedom of speech is transformed into a mere slogan,  religion is replaced by the communist one-party creed and more or less concealed forms of terror are substituted for freedom. The result: the establishment of communism in Eastern Europe by violent means and by the bloody repression of anti-communist resistance. The elimination of real or potential opponents was achieved by incarcerating them in centres for torture-based re-education prisons with extermination regime, forced labour camps, political assassinations, summary executions, mass deportations. Final count: tens millions of deaths, hundreds of millions of ruined human lives.


Beyond the Iron Curtain, the countries spared from the red scourge could do nothing but watch, most of the time helplessly, at the convulsions of the countries where communism had become a state of fact. The only way to help them seemed to acknowledge the human rights to all those for whom the only reality was that enforced by the dictatorial communist regimes. The Declaration of the Human Rights was the lever that led to the dissolution of this system in the Eastern Europe countries. Where did this influence come from? From the fact that the Declaration’s principles represent the fundamentals of human existence, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation. Their "politics" promotes the natural way of life in which each person is unique by what they do, think or feel. When the communist oppressions,  censorship and terror seemed to ensure a peaceful future for this system, the suffering it had caused turned into a true pedagogy of freedom, thus forming strong characters, able to dissolve this state of fact.


On August 1st, 1975, thirty-three heads of state and governments from European countries along with leaders of the United States and Canada signed the final act of the Helsinki Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It ratified the inviolability of the borders, as they had been established at the end of the World War II, but it also contained a so called "third basket", regarding the free circulation of people and ideas. The Helsinki Act was considered by the leaders of the USSR and other communist states in Eastern Europe a great victory that consecrated the new borders of the Soviet empire. The democratic intellectuals seized the chance they are offered: in August 1976, the KOR is created in Poland, that is the defence committee of those persecuted by the communist regime. In Czechoslovakia in January 1977, 238 persons signed  Charter 77, which required the application of the basket 3 in the Helsinki Accord. In 1978 reflection circles centred around writers and philosophers, scientists or dissident artists are initiated in Hungary, in the Baltic countries as well as in Russia.


The fall of communism was, above all, an ideological collapse, that had prepared the political fall of the dictatorial regimes within most of the former Soviet bloc countries. In this context, culture played a fundamental role. At the same time with the official jargon, an „underground” discourse appeared, aiming to denounce imposture and mendacity, as well as to reject those which, as the well-known anticommunist dissident Doina Cornea said, "have ceased to think." For the Soviet empire, over-armed for a "cold" or "warm" war, the peril did not come from the West, with which it was dealing  in a successful manner. The peril did not come from the "American missiles”. It came from their own countries’ intellectuals, despised by the "men of the system". "Who is that musician?" Gorbachev asked when a professor from the University of Vilnius, Vitautas Landbergis, dared to proclaim Lithuania’s independence on behalf of the Sajudis civic movement in  defiance of the KGB troops. The peril came through the democratic intellectuals "speech" and through their "writing", illegally spread by rudimentary means.


When looking into these events almost twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet bloc they do confirm that asserting human rights is synonymous with the expression of an authentic human identity. Not taking them into consideration means the inevitable return to a condition that the entire Eastern Europe tries to forget. The pedagogy of the past suffering has undoubtedly achieved its target, but in the new context of accession to the European Union, it should teach the lesson of freedom and openness to the authentic values of humanity.


We should not overlook the fact that the perception upon the ideal of freedom , achieved through so much and hard suffering can also be distorted: the excessive idealization may transfer the fundamentals of freedom such as they appear in the Declaration of human rights to utopian spheres. Ignoring this ideal and particularly the pedagogy of suffering may cause an irreparable break between the values of the past and the desire of the present to assert itself; making it formal can move the interest and poles of action towards an area characterized by pseudo-values, falseness and imposture. For each of the former Communist bloc countries understanding this lesson of authentical freedom represents the great stake of shaping their own identity within the new United Europe. Without ignoring the past, we should not let overlook the fact that this is rather a guide, than a goal which we must achieve. It is not viable to hold on to a condition that is no longer actual , just as it is equally wrong to adopt an attitude totally independent of the great lessons of history.


What can we do to avoid such situations? It is enough to look carefully at the history woven around the ideal of freedom, as it is formulated in the Declaration of Human Rights. Each country and each people have brought their contribution to conceiving it and, ultimately, it is this story that makes the document have a universal, perennial vocation. It is not text itself, but the idea conveyed that motivated the action of tens of nations to defend liberty.


The transition in Eastern Europe has not bee a the only transition during the last twenty years. The whole world passes in fact through a transition. The strategic alliances have formed fragile constellations. The diplomatic priorities are changing in the light of an ever-moving geopolitical configuration. The shifts of this ending millennium do not exclude any area of life: the forms and the substance of knowledge are rapidly evolving, the technological revolution effects become more and more tangible, and the sphere of telecommunications  practically spans the entire planet. Economic practices and financial instruments evolve under the impulse of a fast dynamic and the fluctuations on the capital markets are triggered by an almost unpredictable logic. At the same time, traditional models are overshadowed by unusual behaviour and more and more often we have to respond to bioethical dilemmas inconceivable a few decades ago.


Our present world faces a series of paradoxes: underdevelopment does not exclude arming, democracy does not eradicate corruption, and market economy fails to prevent ecological disasters and unemployment. 50 years after it was adopted, the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights is systematically defied, either on ideological pretexts, or under the endemic burden of poverty.  


It would be inappropriate to leave out of this short analysis what might be called the globalization of vices. Organized crime, traffic of drugs, weapons, radioactive substances or human organs, child prostitution, paedophilia, underground economy, tax dodging and forced emigration are the most striking, but not the only aspects of  world-wide  ills  that  governments, law forces or humanitarian organisations have to do battle against, often admitting their inefficiency.


The past teaches us that no civilization or social structure in the history has just vanished, like the mythical Atlantis. The source of the above mentioned disorders belongs more to time rather than to space. On a smaller and smaller planet, deeply heterogeneous collective periods confront each other. The West has stepped into the so-called post-modern and post-industrial age. The Eastern Europe countries cross post-communist times, meant to provide their full evolution into modernity. On the other hand, many societies of our contemporary world rely upon a pre-modern mentality.


Politics and economy have succeeded in organizing the planet space, but not also its time. Through agreements, governments can bring together geographically far distant countries. In their turn, the world economy players can build the infrastructure necessary to ensure any type of connection between human communities. Physical distances thus become very relative; however, this is not the case when talking about the time perception gaps. These gaps generate contradictory horizons of expectations. Western man wants a 'green' holiday, while the Indian in the Amazon forest, living in an unpolluted environment, dreams about a motorboat. One individual wants to return to nature and another tries to enter in the technological modernity. No one would object if diversity of time perceptions would lead only to different personal ideals. Unfortunately, from this point on not only our personal desires split, but also community attitudes, expressed through political offensive options. All kinds of misunderstandings occur today mainly because the different branches of the world live inside parallel histories. The big challenge of the next millennium seems to be related to the question: what can we do for all the planet's inhabitants to become truly contemporary?  


How can we explain to those outside the democratic Western world the fact that it seeks to progressively free itself from the fascination of modernity and that it is looking for a spiritual alternative that does not exclude a dialogue with the traditional values? How could we persuade the West that the pre-modern or the post-totalitarian societies can pass directly to post-modernity, without being confronted with the excesses of the industrial age? We are facing a communication problem and I believe that, at this level, a better understanding of the "human rights" concept plays a fundamental role.


The Reykjavik Conference is a good opportunity. First, we can try to make a distinction between the "human rights" and its related concepts such as democracy and the rule of law upon which is focussed the energy of  civil society. From our experience during the communist regime, we can understand the easiness with that the totalitarian regimes may accept the "rule of law" principle. I could see how the "free elections" slogan, shouted in front of the tanks and guns belonging to the communist repression system could be used for the seizure of power by the former communist nomenclature and the new oligarchs. I did see how the “shop window democracy" could disguise itself into a real democracy. I did see how manipulating the public opinion through the oligarchs’ "free media" can be more effective in the market economy and in democracy times, than the communist propaganda spread by the official media of the totalitarian regime, in which no one believed any more. I did see how the commanders and the authors of crimes against their own people could fend off criminal responsibility through prescription, because the agreements regarding  „genocide” do not apply to their situation and the general recognition of "crimes against humanity" is thus delayed. After all, can we actually give "human rights" a generally accepted definition?


We live in a more or less the same 21st century world, thanks to  international law and by virtue of  technological progress. We will not really have a dialogue until we live in a same type of time. But, in order to stand before one another with our particular affinities and needs, it is necessary to establish a universal consensus referring to those moral values that protects not only each community, but also each person. How could we initiate a real dialogue to discover it?


It's risky to establish such a consensus around the idea of good. We can surmise that, for centuries from now on, every society will have its own views about its spiritual or earthly welfare. Trying to standardize these concepts means to advocate the establishment of a single type of thinking and to ineffectively multiply the outbreaks of tensions. Political doctrines, symbolic contexts, local traditions and belief systems are irreducible. There are therefore legitimate suspicions of any syncretistic project able to relativize the uniqueness of these discourses and representations. No one – a politician, thinker, religious leader or ordinary man - is willing to sacrifice his identity. We cannot talk effectively if the interlocutor feels the danger of having  his identity maimed. Nothing allows us to pretend that our offer is superior, in absolute terms, compared to one made by  others . On the other hand, nobody can claim today to reduce the whole human family to the denominator of his own political, economic, cultural or religious options. Therefore, if we cannot always perceive the common good, it seems to me more reasonable to begin with identifying the common harm. It is in the interest of all nations to meet on the same ground in order to reject what they all reckon to be intolerable.  


I am confident that everyone here refuses from the very beginning the idea of war, terrorism, torture, pollution, crime of opinion, xenophobia, racism, and genetic manipulation, exploitation of children, social exclusion, hunger, professional discrimination on sex, religion or ethnic affiliation. We have the duty to diagnose together these diseases, so that we can heal together the wounds that they continue to make.


Moreover, we cannot forget that we paid a toll of tens of millions of human lives for the experience of the communist regime, which tried to alienate us from our natural humanistic European vocation. The freedom regained through human sacrifice has given us all not only rights, but also responsibilities that we are gradually getting used to, under often difficult social and psychological conditions. For half century the citizens of the former communist countries were deprived of all their rights, including the right to life. The lesson of their suffering and struggle is a first step for understanding the great lesson of every individual liberty within the boundaries of respect for the other individuals’ liberty.


[1] Speech at the ICD conference: Human Rights Protection & International Law: the Dilemma of Restraining and Promoting International Intervention, 12 April 2013, Reykjavik, Iceland