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A Question of Freedom: The European Writers’ Parliament, the absence of V.S. Naipaul, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Nov 30, 2010 in Guest Posts, Writing

"Non-Violence" ("The Knotted Gun"), by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations Headquarters, New York CityI am not a political writer.  I am, however, a writer.  I am not a political person.  I am, however, a person.  As a human being, I stand for the rights of human beings.  I possess a proud and dedicated commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was a declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December of 1948 in Paris.   The declaration is now available in three hundred and seventy-five dialects and languages.  The Declaration arose as a result of the experiences during the Second World War.  It was designed to establish a number of agreements between member countries that would prevent any possibility of the recurrence of the horrors of the Second World War.  It presented thirty articles which have been amended and extended as deemed appropriate in numerous international treaties, regional human rights instruments, national constitutions and laws.

Part of the Declaration’s preamble states:

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…”

And, subsequent to this preamble, the Declaration goes on to list thirty Articles, but I highlight only two here, for these relate to the area of discussion now prevalent at the European Writers’ Parliament in Istanbul:

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

I am here in Istanbul as a guest of the Turkish Government and I am attending the European Writers’ Parliament as a delegate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  An invitation was extended to me, and I gratefully and graciously accepted.  The intended purpose of the Parliament was to discuss the nature of European literature, the part it has played in history, the part it will play in our future.

Before I arrived I was asked a number of questions, which I detail below.  My answers are also included.  These were questions that were forwarded by the Turkish press.

1.      In the history, the authors like Hemingway, Gide, Sartre come together against the fascism or war and write a manifest to criticize the world. Now, as a writer what is the main problem of the world? At the end of the parliament as you know, a big declaration will be created, so what will be written in this declaration, what are your previsions? [sic]

I believe, fundamentally, that the basic difficulty we face in the world today is a lack of tolerance of others’ religious, political, philosophical and personal views. This lack of tolerance has arisen as a result of a failure to communicate, and the creation of barriers between cultures and societies by self-serving governments and socio-political groups. If we could simply communicate, and as a result of that communication bring about an understanding of the humanity of all peoples, then the vast majority of the world’s difficulties would be addressed and solved.

2.      What is the main feature of European literature? [sic]

The main feature of European literature is the fact that it carries with it the perspective of history.  European literature possesses a legacy and heritage that stretches back many hundreds, even thousands of years, and innate and inherent in that is the responsibility it bears to present the Western viewpoint to the rest of the world as a whole. It relates to the issues we face as a race of peoples. Criticism of the West, just as is the case in criticism of the East, has come about as a result of communication barriers and breakdowns, and literature possesses the power to address and resolve the vast majority of those barriers.  This, obviously, then extends in a reciprocal fashion, and the East would be afforded as much opportunity to present itself to the West through literature.

3.      What could be the benefits of the parliament for the European literature? [sic]

The Parliament for European Literature – I believe – possesses the capacity to generate immense change. By breaking down the differences between cultures and philosophies, by bringing writers from many different backgrounds and cultures together, and as a result of their meeting raise awareness of one anothers’ issues, areas of concern, socio-political obstacles and motivations, one could establish a common ground of understanding and tolerance which would then be exported through the written word to an audience of millions. A book is still capable of
changing a life, and the more understanding, tolerant and compassionate our authors are, the more change can be affected by what they write.

Those were my answers – albeit brief – but I was constrained within a certain number of words.  These questions, and my answers, came long before I began my journey, and long before I heard of the controversy surrounding the invitation extended to V.S. Naipaul.

As has been reported – in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and many other newspapers around the world, V.S. Naipaul had been invited as a keynote speaker.  He was due to address the collected body of over one hundred authors from around Europe.  He did not come.  A Turkish poet made a statement to the effect that he did not wish to be represented at the Parliament by V.S. Naipaul due to the fact that Naipaul has previously stated his disagreement with various aspects of Islamic practice.  This was then picked up by Turkish press, then the world’s press, and there were adherents to both sides of the discussion appearing with each passing hour. In order to prevent the Parliament being hijacked by this issue, Naipaul released a statement to the effect that he would not be attending.  It was too late.  The Parliament was already hijacked, and all for the good.

The panel upon which I sat for the last two days, a panel devoted to ‘reconceptualising the boundaries of European literature’ was the panel upon which Mr. Naipaul was due to sit.

During our panel we discussed this Naipaul issue.  It was topical, contentious, a subject of both indignation and debate.  We considered the nature of the declaration that we – as a collected body of writers – would make following our attendance at the Parliamentary commissions.

We could not, however, avoid discussion of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

One attending Turkish author, recently acquitted of violation of Article 301, was awaiting an appeal by the prosecution service.  If successful, he was to be tried a second time for the same crime.  If found guilty of this crime, he would be imprisoned.

Before amendments were made to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code on April 30, 2008, the article stated the following:

1.     A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.

2.     A person who publicly denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organizations shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.

3.     In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.

4.     Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

On April 30, 2008, article 301 was amended by the Parliament of Turkey, with the following changes:

  • replacement of the word “Turkishness” with the phrase “the Turkish Nation” (so “denigration of Turkishness” became “denigration of the Turkish Nation”);
  • reduction of the maximum penalty from three years to two;
  • removal of the special provision aggravating the punishment for denigration when committed by a Turkish citizen in another country;
  • requiring permission of the justice ministry to file a case. The permission procedure of Article 301 will be carried out by the Directorate General of the Criminal Affairs of the Ministry of Justice where competent judges are seconded to the Ministry. Even if a criminal investigation is launched upon the permission of the Minister of Justice, the prosecutor still has discretionary power to decide not to prosecute.

I am not levelling a judgment.  I am not here to criticize another country’s penal or justice codes.  However, I am here to observe, appreciate, attempt to understand, and thus make a declaration of my opinions.  This is, after all, the very foundation of freedom of speech as a concept.

We were all asked to submit a paragraph or two to express our views.  These statements would then be coalesced into one unified and structured statement that communicated our collective attitude towards what had happened here.  I appreciate that Mr. Naipaul did not wish for the Istanbul Conference to be hijacked by this issue, but it has been.  I am pleased.  The Naipaul issue is a matter that can serve to highlight the hundreds of thousands of such situations worldwide.  I do not imagine there is one country amongst the 48 signing members for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights who are guilt-free or innocent of violation of these same UDHR Articles as noted above.

So I wrote my statement, as such:

“We, as the European Writers’ Parliament, unreservedly and without condition, acknowledge, support and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and all that this Declaration intends, specifically and especially, the rights that we – as human beings – inherently possess to communicate, either verbally or in writing, our own opinions, and to communicate about, disagree, or agree with the opinions of others, regardless of political, philosophic, ideological or religious affiliation or membership, and we also reserve the right to maintain, uphold and support said affiliations and memberships without fear of reprisal, attack, censure, persecution or punishment.”

Considered far too legal-sounding, I rewrote the statement more simply, as so:

“We – as free thinkers and writers – support the right to communicate our own opinions without fear of persecution or punishment.  In a world where the ability of all peoples to communicate one with another increases ever-daily, we wish to state our protest regarding any inhibition or attempt to inhibit the right to freedom of thought or speech.”

All delegates were given the opportunity to make a statement, and these have now been submitted in writing to the relevant moderators of each Parliamentary Commission.  The mediators are now tasked with the responsibility of assembling the many statements into one cohesive whole which will then be submitted to the press, to the Parliamentary organizing body itself, and also – as far as I understand – to the chairpersons of the Office of the City of Culture here in Istanbul, and the President of Turkey.

I don’t believe any of us came here to be contentious, controversial, argumentative, critical, censorious or disrespectful.

I, for one, came here as a guest, as a writer, as a human being, but in seeing what I have seen here, in hearing what I have heard, all I could possibly ask is that all forty-eight declared members of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights review this declaration, recognize and acknowledge that this Declaration was established for a very precise reason, and that the representatives who signed on behalf of each of the member nations were the elected and authorised representatives for each of their respective nations.

Read and understand the thirty Articles.  Ask yourself a question: What world would we have now if each and every nation had enforced adherence to this declaration within its own territories, and had held every other member nation responsible to do the same?

If such a thing had happened, then I would not be writing this.  I would perhaps be in the Istanbul Hilton discussing European literature with V.S. Naipaul.

R.J. Ellory is the author of eight novels including the bestselling A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, which was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Barry Award, the 813 Trophy, the Quebec Booksellers’ Prize and was winner of the Nouvel Observateur Crime Fiction Prize. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages. R.J. Ellory currently lives in England. www.rjellory.com.

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3 Responses »

  1. Great post, Roger. VS Naipaul is one of my top two or three favorite authors of all time, and leave it to him to ignite such a controversy, even in his absence. I’m sure he would underscore your eloquent statement on free thinkers and writers.

    I would also add that the UDHR is strictly of its time. 1948 was a very different world than what we currently face, and while the notions contained within the declaration are timeless, it could never be passed today. The United Nations has become the exclusive sounding board for tyrants and anti-Semites, and as such, would never sign off on anything so sweeping as the UDHR. Not even in their most cynical moments (of which there are more than a few).

    In addition, the government of Turkey’s unctuous posturing on their own human rights shortcomings is laughable. You may remember the film MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, in which an American was imprisoned in Turkey for drug smuggling. That 1980 film singlehandedly destroyed Turkey’s tourist business, and they have yet to recover. Ever since then, however, Turkey has endlessly howled about the simplistic, one-sided nature of the film and how it is totally inaccurate. Turkey is a wonderful country, they say, and we’re not the human rights deprivers these lowlife filmmakers say we are.

    Article 301 says different.

    And I’m glad you put it out there for all to see.

  2. I stand better advised, Mike, and I appreciate your considered response. Perhaps it is time for a new UDHR?

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