Report on WiPC Brussels conference
Between 24 and 27 March 2011, the WiPC was in Brussels for our ninth conference; we were some 75 strong, from almost forty centres. It was spring in Brussels; we were comfortably settled into three hotels in the city centre and our events were all at easy walking distance. The conference was hosted by PEN Flanders, in association with the biennial literary festival Passaporta; in fact, three conferences were brought together under the umbrella of Passaporta: the WiPC, ICORN (the international network of cities of refuge, which Brussels has just joined) and HALMA, a European association of houses of literature. This exercise in partnering made the conference not only viable financially, cutting registration costs dramatically, but also mutually beneficial, especially for the WiPC and ICORN, who have an important, longstanding working relationship.
In fact, the WiPC conference could not have happened without the generous support and logistical management of Passaporta; we simply do not have the financial or staffing resources to organize and realize such an event. In addition, PEN Flanders found support from the Flemish Minister-President to fund writers from Africa and Asia, who otherwise could not have taken part. Several other writers were generously supported by the Norwegian and Swedish PEN centres. In addition to our guests, WiPC delegates and our intrepid staff, we were joined by International Secretary Hori Takeaki and President John Ralston Saul, Rudolf Geel and Jan Honout of the PEN Emergency Fund, and Sara Whyatt’s co-interim-Executive Director of PEN International, Frank Geary.
On Thursday, before the official conference, we had eight hours of meetings with European Parliament and European Commission, including three meetings with members of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss China; four hours with funding and programming officials, in company with our conference partner, ICORN, and a meeting with Viviane Reding, a Vice-President of the European Commission. With PEN Flanders president David van Reybrouck and PEN Flanders WiPC chair Hilde Keteleer, we met with the Minister-President of Flanders, Kris Peeters, who listened closely to the statements of four of our invited guests and invited media to meet them as well. All this before being formally welcomed to Brussels by the Lord Mayor, and taking part in the first of the Passaporta Literary Festival events.
Friday morning, the conference began. We had several objectives: to explore connections between WiPC/PEN and the European Community; to move forward with several key policy issues, including digital media, religious defamation and exploring the basis for a network of European centres. Over three days we heard six Frontline Reports, from individuals invited to Brussels to share their experiences and their analysis. Our guests were Deo Namujimba, in exile from the Congo, Parwez Kambakhsh, in exile from Afghanistan, Naziha Rejiba, now back in Tunisia, Arthur Gakwandi from Uganda, Andrej Khadanovich from Belarus, and Heng Sreang from the new PEN centre in Cambodia. We had also invited Ricardo Alfonso Gonzalez, living in Spain after his release from a Cuban prison last autumn, but because he is seeking asylum, he was unable to leave Spain and instead sent us a moving statement, which I read as part of my opening remarks on Friday morning; you’ll find links to both statements below, as well as a link to the provocative keynote address delivered by ICPC President Tienchi Liao Martin. (A shoutout to the online human rights magazine Sampsonia Way for showcasing our conference: www.sampsoniaway.org)
Highlights: I’ve heard from many of you that the Frontline Reports were especially valuable, and I would add to those the reports we heard during the Digital Media session, from Sri Lanka, Iran and China. We were very honoured to have with us Heidi Hautala, Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, who spoke frankly and knowledgably in a dialogue with John Ralston Saul. The session on MENA was exilerating, with our own WiPC staffer, Ghias al-Jundi’s overview illuminated by his personal experience on Syria, followed by his conversation/interpretation with Naziha Rejiba of Tunisia. We heard for the first time from Parwez Kambakhsh about his experience of serving 21 months in seven prisons, while awaiting either execution or a pardon from President Karzai, and how PEN centres worked together in an extraordinarily sophisticated manner with their own embassies and the UN to get him out of Afghanistan.
Challenges: The overall scheduling was determined by the co-ordination of three conferences under the umbrella of Passaporta; as a result we did have fewer hours solely for our meetings than we had in Glasgow, for example. The good news is that we heard from every centre present, and the bad news is that while many people spoke succinctly, not everyone did. I personally believe that centre reports are essential to a conference, as we all otherwise focus almost entirely on our centre work and it is valuable to make comparisons and gather new ideas. Unfortunately this (and a few other scheduling issues) meant that other sections of the agenda had to be shortened, for which I apologize, and thank you all for working within these constraints. I know that spirited conversations took place outside the conference room. But I know that many people share my regret that there was not sufficient time for planning our next steps.
Outcomes: The situation in Belarus came into focus and many centres indicated a desire to learn more and work on this issue. We agreed to a statement of support for Turkish PEN, and to a statement of support for the Irish PEN Centre, in their campaign to get a constitutional referendum on the issue of blasphemy before the end of the year. We began work on a new strategy for Mexico, following up on a recent study carried out by PEN Canada. There was a fruitful session on how European centres should work together as a network. We began a lively discussion about the role of the WiPC in PEN International and our work on a wide range of freedom of expression issues, but this discussion was cut short. A strong proposal from Scottish PEN on cooperative fundraising involving PEN International and the centres was introduced, but needs further conversations, with both the PEN International board and with more centres. Following an excellent discussion on the challenges of digital media, a number of individuals agreed to work on this subject to see it might be the topic for an open session involving all centres at the next Congress. There was agreement that we need to develop a policy concerning digital media. We received about 15 questionnaires, for which thanks, and we’re in the process of analyzing and summarizing those.
During our committee meeting at the Congress, in September, I hope we can pick up directly on many of the conversations we began in Brussels and set policy and campaign objectives for the next year.
A footnote: On Sunday, after our final session we learned that the United Nations Human Right Council had unanimously passed a resolution affirming the protection of individual rights to religious beliefs and practices, which means that the campaign to make blasphemy a crime has been abandoned. There’s a link below to the news release issued by PEN International several days after the conference.
Thank you: The idea of having a conference in Brussels was quietly suggested to us in Glasgow in 2008 by Hilde Keteeler, and she then went about making it happen, with stalwart support from PEN Flanders president David Van Reybrouck and centre members. My thanks to Hilde for her dedication, and for the grace notes of flowers for the interpreters and birthday celebrants, and exquisite chocolates for our colleagues who came from Japan at a time of great personal tragedy. I’d also like to acknowledge the brilliance of Paul Buekenhout and the Passaporta team and the enormous work done by ICORN’s Helge Lunde in preparing for the conferences and meetings with EU officials.
Thank you very much to all who moderated sessions, and to those who were not unhappy to be consulted before the event on agenda issues. My very warm thanks to Ghias and Azar, who interpreted with great spirit and generosity, and also to the three interpreters provided through Passaporta. Tamsin, Ghias, Cathal, and Cathy were of enormous help to Sara and me as we made preparations for the conference, Cathy and Ghias also cheerfully indispensable in Brussels, and I’d especially like to acknowledge Sara’s indefatigable leadership of the team, done while balancing two large hats on her head.
I look forward to seeing you all at the Congress in September, and to working with you until then on various issues. Do contact me at my personal email address, below, which I see more frequently.
Marian Botsford Fraser
Writers in Prison Committee
MBF remarks at the opening session of the conference:
Ricardo Alfonso Gonzalez’ letter to WiPC conference:
Tienchi Liao’s keynote address at opening session:
PEN International March 31st news release on UNHRC Religious Defamation Resolution:http://bit.ly/dRfIRx