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Chair’s Notebook #4 June 30, 2010

Thoughts on celebrations and campaigns…

Celebrations—We are now halfway through the 50th anniversary year of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International.

Inspired by Because Writers Speak Their Minds, the 50th anniversary campaign pages on the website, which includes a page for each of the 50 writers/50 years, and a Facebook hookup, and updates full of links, PEN centres around the world have undertaken wonderful, original activities in celebration of the 50th anniversary—some literary, some for fundraising, some for campaigns; some are taking the form of publications, others will culminate in a major event on November 15th, Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Two centres have chosen to build their marking of the anniversary on the tradition of the Empty Chair.  Do keep checking on the updates page; it’s a great rolling record of this year.

In April, I went to London for the Free the Word! Literary Festival. Two events celebrated the 50th anniversary; at both, we featured an Empty Chair, honouring Liu Xiaobo. The first was a dialogue between the Egyptian physician/writer/activist Nawaal el Saadawi and the Georgian poet/performance artist Irakli Kakabadze, moderated by journalist Michela Wrong (author of excellent It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower which I’m just finishing). It was one of those encounters between writers from very different worlds, different generations, that took time to find its rhythm, and then was over too soon.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon down at the Young Vic, we hosted a Literary Lunch, at which seven writers read from the texts of seven of our emblematic fifty cases. So we had, for example, Ala Hlehel, a young Palestinian writer living in Israel (look for his work in the excellent new collection, Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World, published by Bloomsbury) reading from Georgi Markov’ eloquent memoir; South African crime writer Deon Meyer reading from Ugandan editor/essayist, Rajat Neogy’s memoir; and Indian poet Sujata Bhatt reading the poems of Vietnamese Nguyen Chi Thien. We’ve put these seven selections, edited as scripts for reading on the website for centres who might wish to use them.

Campaigning—In addition to performances and conversations and writing, this is also a year of serious campaigning. In my third notebook entry, I wrote about the Iran campaign; here are two other issues we’re working on this year, in collaboration with various centres; both of these will be up for discussion and possibly the subject of resolutions in Tokyo:

Dawit Isaak: Since a 2001 crackdown on the independent press, Eritrea has become a nation that can place independent journalists and opposition figures into death camps with complete impunity. Since September, 2001, 15 of the 35 journalists and opposition politicians held at Eira Eiro prison camp in Eritrea have died. One of the prisoners who remains alive is a Swedish citizen, the journalist, playwright and author and International PEN WIPC main case, Dawit Isaak, who is also our emblematic case for 2002.

While Isaak and his colleagues have been detained without trial, or even formal charges, the European Union has agreed to transfer €122 million euros of unconditional aid to Eritrea between 2009-2013. But the EU agreement with Eritrea makes no mention of safeguards that will prevent aid money being used for other purposes, nor does it set out expectations which Eritrea must meet in order to remain eligible for further aid.

Even though the European Commission has expressed “concern over the human rights and governance situation in Eritrea,” and even specified  “the continued detention without trial or visitation rights of prisoners of conscience, the absence of a free press, severe restrictions on freedom of expression…” the Commission has recently argued that putting conditions on aid is inadvisable because of  likely ill effects on the country’s poorest citizens. Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in Africa. No reasonable person disputes its right to receive assistance for purposes of rebuilding its food supply, health care and infrastructure. So this is a conundrum.

The Swedish Centre (which collected 20,000 signatures on behalf of Isaak in 2009) has asked the EU to scale back economic aid to Eritrea “until the death camp in Eira Eiro has been closed, and prisoners of conscience handed over to the Red Cross, released or given fair and open trials for their alleged crimes.”

It would be very helpful if other PEN centres would ask their own governments to raise human rights concerns, and especially the case of Isaak and others, directly with the government of Eritrea. At International PEN, in consultation with WiPC staff, our President and International Secretary, we are considering what position PEN International might take, and have already had a meeting with the EU on this case.

Religious Defamation:

In recent years, the WIPC of PEN International and many other nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern about efforts to make the criticism of someone's religion a criminal offence. Since 1999, Religious Defamation has been the subject of resolutions at both the UN General Assembly in New York, and at meetings of what is now called the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. The most recent such resolution was narrowly passed at the UNHRC in March 2010. We’re also concerned about the efforts of the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards, established in 2007 by the Islamic Conference (OIC) and a group of African countries, to draft a treaty that would ban religious defamation.

PEN International represents writers, artists and journalists of all faiths and none. We favour respectful discussion across nations and between religious groups and believe that Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights already cover religious hate speech and threats to public order that may arise from public expression of religious insults. In June, 2008, PEN made an oral submission to a meeting of the UNHRC in Geneva, which contains these words: International PEN believes that legal prohibitions on ‘defamation of religion’ can easily pit one religion against another, as history has too often shown. Free criticism of governments, organizations, and institutions is essential for the advancement of societies. Rights rest within individuals, not in the groups and institutions with whom they are affiliated or associated.

In September, 2008, the Bogota Congress passed a resolution concerning UNHRC religious defamation resolutions. In March 2009, the WIPC was one of 200 civil society organizations from 46 countries, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish, secular,  humanist and atheist groups, endorsing a statement jointly sponsored by IHEU, UN Watch, Freedom House and the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom.

The Norwegian and American centres are currently working on a proposal for a panel discussion in Geneva at the UNHRC this autumn, chaired by John Ralston Saul. I’ll be writing directly to centres in countries that have either supported or abstained on the religious defamation resolutions, hoping that you will express your support of PEN International’s position. I also hope to set aside time during the WIPC meetings at the Tokyo Congress for discussion.

For a useful overview: http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/discrimination/pdf/3-2010-focus-paper-defamation-of-religions.pdf

What’s in a Name? As many centres will recall, we’ve been in the process of looking at the identity of our organization over the past several years. One aspect of that thinking is that, for several reasons, our name should become PEN International. PEN International is identical in all three of our official languages. And for purposes of having a strong presence worldwide, on websites and in our own communications, it is strategically smarter to have the word ‘PEN” first, as that is the key word in our identity.

So, over the next six months or so, International PEN will become PEN International, on the website, in news releases and on letterhead, etc. But I’ve decided to get a head start on implanting this new name in my brain, and I hope yours.

Link to all the PEN notebook entries