2-4 May 2018 ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, met in Malmö 2-4 May 2018 to convene the 9th general assembly, under the title Safe Not Silent. The 70-year anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights, formative to the foundation and work of the organization, and the World Press Freedom Day, aptly framed the programme of the Assembly and underlined people’s fundamental right to freedom of expression as free human beings. The very rights that the network strives to protect and promote every day.
This message was echoed at the GA opening on 2 May in the speech by Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR). She pinpointed the many forms of suppression and persecution applied by oppressors across the world, encouraging us all to reinforce the message of the continued relevance of human rights as a universal standard.
Looking back on the passed 70 years, keynote speaker Mike Van Graan, challenged the relevance of the declaration, and questioned who the declaration actually applies to. Stating: - … values mean little when ultimately, it is economic and security interests that are the main drivers of relationships globally.
There are however many exceptionally courageous people risking their own lives working tirelessly to combat the unfairness in this world and fight for the rights of themselves, for the people and better societies. It is important that we stand together to protect the values of human rights, also in countries where individuals and institutions perceive their rights as upheld.
The 2018 GA brought together 300 people from 40 different countries across the globe; city representatives, NGO’s, writers and artists, friends, colleagues and partners from a great part of the ICORN network who work together at a distance. We had the opportunity to meet and share experiences, to learn from each other and to form new partnerships and opportunities in the work to protect and promote human rights and freedom of expression. To stand together to make a difference in all our various capacities.
During the GA, we heard from writers and artists from Zimbabwe, Bahrain, Sudan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Vietnam, Egypt, Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Iran and Libya, in appeals, speeches, panel discussions, workshops, and artistic performances. The topics of the general assembly ranged from mechanisms of oppression, reports from Syria and Manus Island, and media safety in Afghanistan, to creating opportunities for writers and artists in ICORN residencies, focusing on themes such as building professional and safety networks for current and future work, how to overcome challenges in translation in poetry, best practices on models of cooperation in the city network, gender equality and queer rights, as well as facing psychological well being of human rights defenders. All these workshops create essential knowledge and alliances and pave the way forward for the network, to always improve.
We heard strong messages from Nazeeha Saaed, journalist from Bahrain in ICORN residency in Paris, stating that Journalism is not a crime and the importance for journalists to have place that can give them safety not to stay silent. We heard from Supriti Dhar, Bangladeshi journalist and womens rights activist, talking about the shrinking space of freedom of expression in Bangladesh, especially for women. From Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih, and Girmay Yohannes appeal to the international community to end the inhuman treatment of journalists in Eritrea.
Other words and appeals came wrapped in beautifully performed music by Cris Gera, Mikhail Borzykin, Mai Khoi and the Dissidents, Abazar Hamid and Ramy Essam, in Mike van Graans play When Swallows Cry staged on the evening on 3 May, and not least in the poetry of Mansur Rajih, Fatemeh Ekhtesari, Naeimeh Doostdar, Mehdi Mousavi and many others.
ICORN spells International Cities of Refuge Network. We had the privilege of being joined by representatives from 65 members and potential member cities. We heard from new cities on their way to join ICORN; Poitiers, Helsinki and Berlin. Under the title If Mayors ruled the world, the mayors of Bristol, Gdansk and Palermo paneled on the responsibility of cities to take the lead on tackling today’s most pressing global challenges. Mayor Leoluca Orlando confronted the assembly with a moving speech on freedom of movement as an irrefutable human right, based on his experiences in the City of Palermo.
We express our gratitude to all our partners in the City of Malmö for making the ICORN General Assembly 2018 possible, and a truly unforgettable event. We should never underestimate the spaces between the programme where people have the chance to meet and talk and sing and walk. The dinner reception at the Old City Hall upon the generous invitation of the Mayor of Malmö, and the festive dinner at the Malmö Public Library became inspiring meeting places for the network to mingle, and to experience the soul of the City of Malmö. A wonderful exhibition, Safe Not Silent, was displayed at the public library with portraits of writers and artists in ICORN residencies.
The City of Malmö not only lay the physical framework for the assembly. The Malmö team contributed vastly to the programming as well, with partners such as the Malmö Cultural Department, Malmö City Hall, Malmö Public Library, Seriefrämjandet, Malmö University, Malmö Museums and Moderna Museet, and not least all current and former writers and artists in ICORN residencies in Malmö, who all contributed impressively. Particularly in forming the public programme in libraries and museum, as well as the public debate on World Freedom Day at Malmö University, the week long exhibition made in collaboration with the Seriefrämjandet in Rum for Serier and conversation between two great cartoonists in the exhibition, Khalid Albaih and Ali Dorani/Eaten Fish, not to mention the concert in Spegeln with Mai Khoi and Ramy Essam after the reception at Old Town Hall, and the concert with Mai Khoi and the Dissidents on the Friday evening, which was a powerful conclusion to the assembly.
Thank you to the Mayor of Malmö Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh for inviting and receiving us so hospitably in Malmö, and to Deputy Mayor for Culture, Leisure and Public Health Frida Trollmyr, Chairman of the board of Culture Sylvia Björk, Director of Culture Pernilla Conde Hellman and City librarian Torbjörn Nilsson for addressing us so warmly and taking so well care of us during the assembly.
Stay safe, not silent.