August 2015 Letter from John Ralston Saul, International President, to the PEN membership


August 2015 Letter from John Ralston Saul

International President of PEN International

to the PEN membership.

 September 15, 2015

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

There are moments when civilizations throw away the ethical value of that word, civilization. They lose the credibility needed to be taken seriously. The question is, can they get it back? History is surprisingly indulgent. But the damage done – the damage in every sense – is profound.

It is not simply that Europe is taking or not taking a certain number of refugees, although that is the tragedy lived and the test being faced every day. It is the entire attitude surrounding this tragedy. And this goes well beyond Europe. It is about the return of the denial of the Mediterranean as a culture. It is about Canada, the United States, Australia, and so many other countries, capable of playing a humanitarian role, yet not carrying their weight. These are countries which seem to have forgotten their tradition of responding to a crisis by welcoming those in despair. We seem to be witnessing the return of 19th Century negative nationalism and scarcely veiled racial attitudes. There is a stubborn refusal even to try to work on the causes of this crisis, because that might interfere with obscure geo-political strategies. All around us there is a defensive, narrow, self-interested atmosphere at the governing level. And we are faced by a cynical emphasis on particularly narrow military strategies which claim to be saving us from terrorism and barbarism. A single example: Saudi Arabia, a family-led dictatorship, an active force against free expression, an active spreader of extreme religious ideas, yet a senior member of the anti-ISIS coalition. Why? Is it simply one extremist authoritarian view against another? And it is Saudi Arabia which has effectively sentenced Raif Badawi to death by flogging. His crime? His use of free expression.

In April, I led a delegation to the EU with Jarkko Tontti, Josef Haslinger President of German PEN, and Jo Glanville, the Executive Director of English PEN. We presented PEN’s specific demands and recommendations to Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament. He was enthusiastic and positive and I’m sure that he has been working hard to mobilise the Parliament.  Indeed, there are strong demands from many of its members for unified action.

Nevertheless, months have passed. The EU Commission and most of the elected national leaderships – with whom the ultimate responsibility lies – have stumbled, blamed, delayed, given a little here, a little there, and refused to create a coherent, inclusive policy. Now there are serious signs of movement, with Germany and Austria in the lead. Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland have come forward. There is momentum. But all of this comes so late. Literally hours after the German-Austrian initiative, borders began closing across Europe, reversing a fundamental EU reform. And, an emergency gathering of continent-wide leaders was called in Brussels and ended in abject failure.

Why has PEN engaged in this crisis – PEN, the only international organization of literature and free expression? Because we are only secondarily an organization. First, we are a virtual nation of the word, gathering together the world’s writers and readers. Our Charter, first born with John Galsworthy, is perfectly clear:

Literature knows no frontiers. [We must] do our utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds. [Which makes] a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative.

I can’t help but think about the 1933 PEN Congress in Dubrovnik when we had to work out what to do about the German PEN Centre which had been quietly taken over by Nazi sympathizers. Governments and international organizers were still trying to live and negotiate with Nazis and Fascists.

H. G. Wells, then the International President, said from the chair: We must clearly state where we stand and what we advocate – progress or a return to the Middle Ages.

After a tumultuous debate the German Centre was effectively expelled. That debate and decision was one of the few early pillars of international anti-Nazi policy. We had decided that these were not people you could or should negotiate with.

This refugee crisis is one of those moments. We must be clear and forceful.  Thousands of people have died while many of our leaders whined about money, manpower and programs. It is a matter of political will, both to treat the refugees with dignity and immediately to create programs of adoption. But it is the absence of support and of services inside or as near as possible to the countries in crisis which in part explains the suffering, trauma, the panic, and the waves of refugees; that and the absence of an integrated and respectful structure for those who flee. PEN intervened as early as April. We have just spoken out again, and will continue to do so.

And when we see each other in October at the Congress in Quebec we will measure where things are and again intervene.

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                A few words now about some recent initiatives by Centres.

In Honduras, our Centre is caught up in several complex struggles to defend free expression. One of these has to do with the situation inside the largest university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH). A few weeks ago, the situation had so degenerated that armed men were roaming around the neighborhood of Cesario Padilla, a student leader and one of our Board members, threatening to harm him. We knew we had to move fast to draw public attention to this threat in order to force the men to back off, which we did in several ways. None of which solves the central problem.

Second, the Supreme Court of Honduras has suspended from his job the journalist Julio Ernesto Alvarado, even though the higher authority, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, had already ruled that he could not be suspended. The problem is how to ensure that the law is enforced in a place such as this. Honduran PEN is at the centre of this campaign, as are we.

Incidentally, I have met Julio Ernesto and had the case explained several times by different people. It makes no sense at all except as a mechanism of revenge.

Mexican PEN has launched a very good blog to draw attention to the situation in their country. The latest edition is dedicated to women and freedom of expression.  There are many ways of contributing. Have a look.

Following the murder of the Veracruz photo-journalist Rubén Espinosa, in Mexico City, the PEN Mexico leadership was involved in negotiations with the General Attorney of Mexico City over how to handle this apparent return of political violence to Mexico City. Here is a shared PEN Mexico / PEN International intervention interview. At the same time, American PEN initiated a very successful letter campaign to maximize pressure.

The murder of bloggers in Bangladesh and the continuing threats remain a dangerous situation. PEN Bangladesh has been part of the attempt to get the Bangladeshi government and the police to do their job. Swedish PEN has done a wonderful job facilitating the move of some bloggers to exile in Sweden.

Here are a few other very positive Programs:

Scottish PEN’s school program – PEN Power sounds great! As does their new outreach to marginalized writers called Scottish PEN Presents.

I really like PEN America’s Free Expression Daily Digest. It has been going since June and pulls out information from the web. You can sign up here.

PEN Chile and its President Blanca del Rio are ramping up a program of public debates. Recently, they put together on stage Antonio Skármeta, Carlo Franz, and Pablo Simonetti. All three are now involved in the Centre. This is an impressive beginning.

*             *             *

The Quebec City Congress is in five weeks. I’m excited about the focus on indigenous issues and writing. As well as the Quebec Declaration on translation. And we will be finalizing our strategy of the Americas. And electing a new President!

*             *             *

Finally, you may already have heard the good news regarding our partnership with SIDA. Carles Torner will be telling you more. We have a new agreement with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to continue and expand our long standing relationship and our civil society work for free expression. It involves a grant of 31 million SEK ($3,540,000 USD) over four years.

All best wishes,

John Ralston Saul

International President