As in previous years, PEN International held pre-conference discussions for its main committees, including the Writers for Peace Committee and the Linguistic Rights Committee, which I was able to attend via Zoom, albeit at an unusual hour as the conference ran on London time.
PEN International is best known for its work to support and advocate for individual writers in prison or in danger (of death or incarceration). The work of these two committees engage with wider protections necessary to make any writing possible.
Writers for Peace Committee
While a peaceful context is obviously of paramount importance to all civic activity, including reading and writing, the discussion in the Writers for Peace Committee seemed to me to be somewhat generalised and not clearly focussed on questions of war and peace.
Key points that emerged from the presentations were as follows:
- Concern about the complete breakdown of civic order and legal protections in Belarus, with many instances of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of writers along with other activists. Belarus PEN thanked the European Parliament for its work in support of dissent in Belarus.
- Deterioration of protections for freedom of speech everywhere including the EU countries, especially in the context of the pandemic, which provides an aura of legitimacy to restrictions.
- Severe decline of democratic freedoms in Turkey, under what some delegates described as ‘religion-based Fascism’.
- Growing number of nations (both existing and aspirational such as Kurdish PEN) being represented by writers in exile.
- The intractable problem of the need to prevent hate speech without curbing freedom of speech.
There was mention of Asia, in passing and of Burma and Afghanistan specifically. But it surprised me, coming from a WA context, to find that other than widespread concerns about China, there was very little real input from or about our region.
A new committee on Press Pluralism was announced which, I hope, will welcome input from our region.
Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee
2021 marks the 25th anniversary of the Declaration of Linguistic Rights and PEN has a long-standing commitment to promoting linguistic rights as part of the Universal Human Rights.
Discussion focussed on the rights of both indigenous language writers and minority language groups in the Americas and in various parts of Europe, where activists are promoting the importance of teaching children their mother tongue.
While the main presentations made no mention of these struggles in Asia, the chat function lit up with examples of linguistic struggles in our region.
Indigenous Linguistic Rights are of central importance both in WA and in the Asia-Pacific region to our north. It seems to me, this is a significant area where regional collaboration could add enormous value to the global work necessary to preserve linguistic diversity.
—Krishna Sen, Writers in Prison Coordinator