Just before the G-8 leaders met in Germany last weekend, an international summit took place that was arguably of greater historic significance. It was a summit of top dissidents from all over the world, and was attended by the world's most famous "dissident," President George W. Bush.
The conference was organized by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who now chairs the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center. Held in Prague and cosponsored by former presidents Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, it brought together 32 dissidents from 17 countries, including the Muslim and Arab world.
As the conference gathered, Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim said, "I feel disappointed and betrayed by George Bush.... He said that he is promoting democracy, but he has been manipulated by President Mubarak, who managed to frighten him with the threat of the Islamists."
This probably expressed the skeptical view of many who attended, since Bush's democracy-promoting efforts seem to have faded away in his second term, despite the soaring rhetoric of his second inaugural address.
In that speech Bush said, "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world... America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
At the conference, however, Bush seems to have recaptured some of that spirit. After giving the keynote address which itself bolstered a number of participants by mentioning them by name, Bush met with the dissidents privately and spoke with each of them. By Sharansky's account, these were meetings of mutual inspiration - the American leader drawing strength from people who risk their lives for their nation's freedom, the dissidents from being personally honored by the leader of the free world.
Israel too, as a nation, can draw some satisfaction from the fact that a Jerusalem-based institute was the catalyst for this international event. The significance of the conference, Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post, was that for the first time dissidents and Western policy makers were meeting on the same level. Indeed, this interaction produced an important document, a dissident manifesto of sorts, that should be studied and heeded.
The Prague Charter, signed by Sharansky, Havel, and Aznar, listed 10 ways that "governments and peoples throughout the free world [can] help those trying to build free societies." These include: calling for the release of political prisoners; instructing Western diplomats in unfree countries to meet with political prisoners and dissidents; raising public awareness of human rights abuses; raising human rights issues in all meetings with non-democratic regimes; linking bilateral ties to human rights and isolating regimes that oppress their people and threaten other nations "with genocide or annihilation."
In Prague, Bush endorsed this charter, and Senator Joseph Lieberman committed to seek the support of the US Congress as well. Our government and Knesset should do no less.
Even small nations, such as Israel, can do their part to support dissidents and stand for those struggling for freedoms that we often take for granted. Australia, for example, was the first nation to raise the issue of Soviet Jewry in the United Nations.
Israel, for its part, can do more to examine its relationship with unsavory regimes, such as the one in Beijing. It is not enough anymore to act as if human rights concerns are a luxury we cannot afford when considering military relationships.
Israel should not fail to recognize, in the words of the Prague Charter, "the profound moral difference between free societies and societies ruled by fear. Nor is this only a matter of morality. "The protection of human rights is critical to international peace and security," the Charter argues, because "countries that do not respect the rights of their people are unlikely to respect the rights of their neighbors."