Could the city, equipped with new rights and a greater sovereignty open up new horizons of possibility, previous undreamt of by international law? the French philosopher Jacques Derrida asked when inaugurating the International Parliament of Writers network of Cities of Asylum in 1995. The idea of cities taking an active stand for freedom of expression, creativity, solidarity and hospitality was born, and cities all over Europe and beyond joined forces. 21 years later, 30 March – 1 April 2016, 55 cities and regions from around the world could celebrate ICORN’s 10 years anniversary when convening its General Assembly in Hôtel de Ville in Paris.
Benjamin Barber’s main question when addressing the assembly in his keynote speech was: Does the road to changing the world go through City Hall?. Emphasizing the rising roles and responsibilities of cities facing an increasingly challenged traditional world order, both Barber’s speech and the Paris assembly became a huge source of inspiration for the entire network. Hence, the Mayor of Paris Ms. Anne Hidalgo could conclude: … the values of human rights and freedom of expression are at the core of the international strategy of our city. Being a part of ICORN, hosting writers, journalists and artists at risk, is both a very concrete and an important symbolic fulfilment of our commitment.
Krakow has also made literature and freedom of expression a main feature of its values and identity. Their warm welcome and professional care for their third ICORN writer-in-residence, Turkish novelist and activist Asli Erdogan, laid the ground for a period of mutual gain and win-win situations between the city and hosted writer. Returning to Istanbul in the winter of 2016, the strong bonds between Krakow and Asli did has persisted. When Asli was detained and imprisoned on terror charges following the crackdown on intellectuals after the coup in Turkey in July, her former host city reacted with an overwhelming, still ongoing campaign of solidarity and compassion: Public manifestations and support letters for Asli, including from the City Mayor, and more than 15 000 signatures demanding her immediate release.
Turkey is only one of many countries and regions where freedom of expression is increasingly under attack. At this very moment, ICORN receives its application number 100 for 2016 from writers and artists at risk, and there is unfortunately no sign of a Christmas break for persecution of the most targeted and vulnerable human rights defenders. Luckily, cities are responding, and taking action when the world seems to spin out of orbit: Nine new cities, Helsingborg, Luleå, Rotterdam, Sandviken, Surrey (first Canadian ICORN city!), Piteå, Uddevalla, Örebro, Umeå have joined ICORN in 2016. Belo Horizonte’s imminent signing into the network preludes a strong expected movement of other cities in Brazil and Latin America becoming ICORN safe havens. 16 writers and artists at risk have been welcomed to ICORN cities during the year, and no less then 14 qualified applicants have been invited and are on their way to an ICORN city of refuge.
Freedom of expression is ICORN's core value and driving force. In 2016, Sweden celebrated 250 years of freedom of the press, and one of the highlights this year was the free expression stage at the Göteborg Book Fair. Together with Swedish PEN, Gothenburg University and Scholars at Risk, ICORN created a programme of events running every half hour throughout the four days of the fair. ICORN writers and artists from Syria, Bangladesh, Palestine, Nigeria, Iraq, Sudan, Egypt and Iran performed on stage, highlighting the fragility of freedom of expression and human rights in the world.
For a network of cities promoting democracy, human rights and international solidarity, it is impossible to ignore the current fates of two cities, the ancient metropolises of Aleppo and Mosul. It took 4000 years and hundreds of generations to build the city of Aleppo, but only one single generation to tear it down, said UN’s humanitarian advisor to Syria Jan Egeland in Geneva on 15 December. And we have not been able to help when the needs were the largest. Through this war, Aleppo will become a black chapter in the history of international relations.
From their ICORN cities of refuge, writers, artists and journalists who were able to escape Mosul upon ISIS’ occupation, have been fighting against the total extermination of its culture and its people, together with their fellow citizens remaining in the besieged city. The coming weeks and months will show if the international community will again only passively witness the endless suffering of hundreds of thousands people, or if the process can be reversed and the people of Mosul and its neighboring regions can start living in peace.
Our Immigrants, Our Strength was the headline of an article in New York Times 21 September 2016. As the mayors of three great global cities – New York, Paris and London – we urge world leaders assembling at the United Nations to take decisive action to provide relief and safe haven to refugees fleeing conflict, Bill de Blasio, Anne Hidalgo and Sadiq Khan claimed in the address, emphasizing that We must continue to pursue an inclusive approach to resettlement in order to combat the growing tide of xenophobic language around the globe.
No response could be more apt and relevant to the groundbreaking and frightening global events of 2016, including the wars in Syria and Yemen and the spread of racism and xenophobia. Nothing could frame a better prelude to next year’s major ICORN event. 31 May – 2 June 2017 the joint ICORN Network Meeting and PEN International WiPC Conference will take place in Lillehammer, Norway, under the title “In other words”. Join us for a celebration of free expression, and a much needed exploration of new words, new vocabularies and new mindsets to grasp and cope with a world seemingly more fragile, uncertain and unrecognizable than ever.