The PEN International Congress, Belgrade, September 2011

13 Oct 2011

By Margie Orford

Serbian PEN hosted this year’s PEN International Congress in Belgrade. The Congress theme was Literature – the language of the world. A nice catchphrase and the Serbians were good hosts. They plied us with apricot brandy and great Balkan wine, but it was all in a good cause.

The PEN International President, John Ralston Saul and the Secretary General, Takeaki Hori, together with the PEN international staff have managed to loosen up the proceedings and to include some more discussion and strategic planning prior to the assembly. The Congress went smoothly and you will have seen that the resolution proposed by South African PEN about the ‘Secrecy Bill’ was passed unanimously. Several other resolutions were passed.

Of particular interest to South African PEN is the situation in Mexico, where journalists and writers have been murdered with impunity and in increasing numbers. International PEN is co-ordinating a world-wide commemoration of these killings on Mexico’s Day of the Dead in November. Liesl Jobson, of South African PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and who did a great job organising the readings to honour detained Chinese Nobel Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo earlier this year, will be organising this event. We will send around more information as soon as it is available and will call on PEN members to work on this campaign.

This was my third international PEN meeting. I attended the Congress in Tokyo last year and the Writers in Prison Committee meeting in Brussels in March. Attending regularly has meant that I have been able to establish connections with other PEN centres and to form relationships with the staff of PEN International. This has paid off directly for South African PEN.

American PEN, the UNIVERSAL PERIODIC REVIEW and the Secrecy Bill

We are working together with American PEN, based in New York, on an assessment of freedom of expression in South Africa. This will be for submission to the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations. South African PEN will make the submission jointly with PEN International. This research is possible because of American PEN’s centre’s generous offer of assistance. Deji Olukotun, a lawyer working with American PEN will do the research in consultation with a small editorial consulting group. This research will provide an invaluable analysis of the current state of freedom of expression after a turbulent couple of years in which the Protection of Information Bill has done the rounds. So thanks to Larry Siems of American PEN. The research when it is completed will give us a background document giving an overview of freedom of expression issues in South Africa. We will then submit a short document to the UPR. I have included some detail below about the UPR and why it is useful for South African PEN.

What is the UPR and how will it assist South African PEN’s work:
After years of complaints that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights was failing to protect the human rights standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, in 2006 the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace the Commission with a Council on Human Rights. The Council was given the task to address the problem that the Commission had become at best ineffective, and at worse a means through which member States could avoid censure. Too many members of the Commission had appalling human rights records of their own – countries that included China, Russia, Zimbabwe and Iran – and that they too often collaborated with each other in opposing resolutions condemning human rights abuses so as to protect themselves from criticism. The change was heralded by the then Secretary General, Kofi Annan, as an “historic resolution… that gives the United Nations a much-needed chance to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world”.

The new Council is made up of 47 members, elected at the UN General Assembly by secret ballot. It meets three times a year in Geneva to discuss all aspects of the UN Charter on Human Rights. One of the major initiatives of the new Council is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) a process through which all 192 UN member states are required to show that they meet their obligations to uphold and promote human rights. All UN member states are now subject to regular “periodic reviews” where their human rights obligations come under scrutiny and any member that is found to have systematically failed to uphold these rights can be suspended. All the member states are subject to review over a four-year period. Therefore 48 countries are scrutinized each year, in three sessions of 16 countries. The UPR works under the Council. The UPR itself holds three sessions separate from the regular Council sittings, reporting the outcomes of its reviews to the Council.

Another useful aspect of the UPR is that it is a peer review system. It is member states that carry out and oversee the process. It is also the member states that make the recommendations for improvement that come out the Review, giving it a legitimacy and force that previously had not been the case. At the same time, it also allows for much more input from NGOs. NGOs no longer have to have consultative status with the UN to submit reports for formal consideration. For NGOs, particularly small ones and those based in the countries under scrutiny, the UPR provides an opportunity to present to the UN reports on countries and recommendations that will then become part of the review. Any NGO can present a report, and although summarized for the dialogue, the papers are available in full on the UN website. What makes this mechanism especially important is that it is a completely open and public process. All the documents are made available on the UN website, even those of smaller NGOs. All the sessions are recorded not only in writing but in webcasts that can be watched live or on archive. It provides an opportunity for all NGOs, big or small, based outside the country, and more importantly inside, to have their concerns raised and fully documented.

Literacy, literature and freedom of expression

I proposed to the Congress that PEN consider the importance of literacy for effective citizenship and also to the exercising of the right of freedom of expression. Many PEN centres from the developing world share the same challenges of the high illiteracy rates that go with poverty. This will be an area of strategic importance in the future, and it will be a focus of South African PEN’s work over the next few years.

South African PEN is working with a literacy campaign focussing on storytelling, quality children’s literature and reading that is being led by PEN member, Carole Bloch. We are working with a range of other organisations on this well-funded campaign. It is just getting underway, so I will write more about this once it finalised. PEN will be involved in a number of ways, one of which will be to co-host a series of public discussions about literature, language, translation, identity, power and how being illiterate excludes people from exercising full citizenship. I am looking forward to this exciting opportunity of working with people experienced in the field of early childhood reading and literacy.

This new project has also enabled South African PEN to look to establishing links with English PEN. Gillian Slovo is the current president of English PEN. It is wonderful to be working with a woman so intimately connected with South Africa. We are hoping to work on the story project (discussed above) with English PEN, especially through the Writers and Readers programme and their very dynamic Translation Committee. I will write more about this once things are finalised.

PEN in Africa

One of the meetings held in parallel to the Congress was the meeting of PAN – Pen African Network. This network was established over a decade ago and has worked to build links between PEN centres in Africa. International PEN has funded a number of projects across Africa. This and how to work in the future was the focus of the discussions. There have been a number of gross violations of freedom of expression rights in African states – the ongoing detention of writers in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the appalling human rights situation in Somalia.

Senegalese PEN is hosting a PAN meeting in mid-November. I will be attending this – it is a follow up from our rather truncated discussions in Belgrade – with Mike van Graan, the playwright. Mike has been running the Arterial network amongst other things for the last few years and is very knowledgeable about building networks between artists in Africa, as well as the links between creative work, democracy and human rights. He is ideally suited to working with PAN as it fits well with is other work.

I have enjoyed this last year’s involvement with South African PEN and PEN International. There will be a great deal of work to do around freedom of expression issues in the next year as the so-called Secrecy Bill looks like it is set to resurface. I look forward to working with all of you. Please contact us if you would like to become more involved.