Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Universal Declaration of Human Rights


English PEN's campaigns are motivated by the organisation's belief that literature can be a powerful force for dialogue and understanding between cultures. This principle was laid down by the first President of English and International PEN, John Galsworthy, when he said in 1921: 'Anything that makes for international understanding and peace is to the good'. This principle was developed at the International PEN Symposium, 'Writers in Freedom', held in London in 1941, at which Edvard Beneš spoke of the need for the post-war world to be one in which 'writers and artists may live and create without anxiety for their personal security, without restrictions on their creative freedom'. These comments anticipate the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, in which the right to freedom of speech is described as 'the highest aspiration of the common people'.

The UDHR does not create an absolute right to freedom of speech. It is quite different in that respect from the First Amendment to the United States constitution, which says that 'Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech'. Instead, the UDHR, and its successor document the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), sets this fundamental right in balance with a range of other rights and freedoms. The ICCPR creates exceptions to the right to freedom of speech, 'such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.' These exceptions are further developed in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and incorporated in UK domestic law in the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). The exceptions in Article 10.2 of the ECHR come under the following headings:

• licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises
• national security
• territorial integrity
• public safety
• prevention of disorder or crime
• protection of health or morals
• protection of the reputation or rights of others
• preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence
• maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary

In its campaigns, English PEN accepts that many constraints on the right to freedom of speech are necessary and appropriate. For instance, English PEN would not campaign to reduce broadcasting restrictions such as the 'watershed' principle of screening adult material only after 9pm. Similarly, we would not campaign against the Official Secrets Act, which limits the circulation of information in the interests of national security. Nor would we campaign against reporting restrictions where the right to a fair trial might be impeded by unbalanced coverage in the media. We would not campaign to remove all civil restrictions on defamation, and we would not campaign on behalf of any writer who was guilty of plagiarising the work or assuming the identity of another person.

In its campaigning work (which constitutes around 25% of the organisation's resources) English PEN is guided by the balance struck between the right to freedom of speech and other human rights in international human rights case law. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights shows that all exceptions to the right to freedom of speech must be necessary, proportionate and subject to the principle of legal certainty, and must not have a chilling effect. Before entering into any such campaign, therefore, English PEN takes the utmost care to confirm that the human rights of a beneficiary or class of beneficiaries are at risk. The organisation follows a clear procedure, in order to show whether a campaign may be necessary in order to meet English PEN's charitable objects.

The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and the office staff are responsible for investigating each case which comes to English PEN's attention. The primary source of information on international campaigns will continue to be the Writers in Prison staff of International PEN (registered charity no. 1117088). Every 'honorary member' adopted by the WiPC is first identified by International PEN. If the Writers in Prison staff of International PEN have any concern about the status of such cases, they will not recommend a case for adoption. Cases rejected by International PEN include the following:

Radio Mille Collines: accused of inciting genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Eduard Limonov: Russian author imprisoned in the late 1990s accused of leading a right-wing organisation linked to racism and the 'planned invasion of Kazakhstan'. International PEN listed his case as one of judicial concern due to poor trial practice. His case was not adopted by English PEN.
Andrei Klimau: Belarus journalist currently in jail. English PEN has not called for his release as the title of the piece for which he has been prosecuted is apparently racist and the article calls for revolution by any means.
Xanana Gusmao: poet and leader of guerrilla group in the 1990s in East Timor. Now East Timor president. English PEN did not call for his release as he led an armed resistance.
Krystian Bala: currently detained in Poland on accusation of murder. Following appeals that he was accused on the basis of fictional writing that depicts a similar crime, International PEN looked into the case and concluded that there was insufficient information to comment. A similar case in New Zealand in the 1990s was also turned down.
Mumia Abu Jamal: former Black Panther, poet and journalist currently on death row in USA. English PEN has not joined others' call for his freedom as we are unable to comment on his guilt or innocence in the murder of a policeman.

As these cases illustrate, International PEN is scrupulous in following its own internal procedures when adopting a case on which to campaign. English PEN adds to this care when it selects honorary members from the International PEN case list. We also use information from the media, government sources, contacts on the ground and fellow centres of International PEN when considering cases for adoption. If it is believed that a campaign may be necessary in order to pursue our objects, then the Writers in Prison Committee and the staff will be charged with devising and implementing such a campaign. If there is any doubt about the status of such a case, a campaign will not be pursued, but we will continue to pursue the truth of the matter.

Please click on the links below for news on our current or recent campaigns:

Reforming the Libel laws

China Campaign 2008

Free Expression Is No OFFENCE

Incitement to Sexual Hatred

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