ICORN 10 YEARS
from past to present
By Helge Lunde, ICORN’s Executive Director
Delegates from 15 cities and representatives from PEN International met in Stavanger, Norway on 9-10 June 2006, and ICORN ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, was born. On 30 March 2016, 55 cities and regions from around the world convened the ICORN general assembly and celebrated its 10 years anniversary in Paris. What is the story behind our ﬁrst ten years? How did this new creation develop? And where does ICORN’s future lie?
The story behind
In July 1993, 300 writers from around world launched an appeal in reaction to the increase of writer assassinations in Algeria. The signatories afﬁrmed the need for a new international structure capable of organizing meaningful solidarity with persecuted writers. On 27 June 1994 the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) was formally established, with Salman Rushdie as its ﬁrst president. The writers, Wole Soyinka and Russell Banks, succeeded him. French intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu, also committed themselves.
IPW soon formed INCA, the International Network of Cities of Asylum, and more than 25 cities joined in, from all over Europe, the USA and Mexico. The INCA member cities committed themselves to host, protect and promote a persecuted writer for one year. However, as the new millennium began, IPW and INCA started to face ﬁnancial and organizational challenges. In 2004, the IPW dissolved, and in 2005, INCA was formally disbanded.
Earlier this year, Hôtel de Ville (The Paris City Hall) was venue for the 2016 ICORN General Assembly and celebration of its 10 years anniversary. Even as far back as February 2004, the Paris City Hall played a remarkable role in the future emergence of ICORN. INCA had summoned its member cities there for a survival meeting, which proved unsuccessful for rescuing INCA. By gathering some of its still most active members, however, it indirectly led to the ﬁrst ICORN seeds being sown.
Would it be possible to imagine the birth of a new initiative, a new sustainable and effective structure? A new global movement, where cities could unite and reinforce their efforts to protect and promote writers at risk from all over the world?
A year after this ﬁrst Paris meeting, the City of Stavanger gathered former and still existing INCA members to meet and explore the issue in more detail: Would it be possible to imagine the birth of a new initiative, a new sustainable and effective structure? A new global movement, where cities could unite and reinforce their efforts to protect and promote writers at risk from all over the world? Those at the meeting agreed they wanted to achieve this, and the City of Stavanger was tasked to ensure that a new network was legally and physically grounded. A year later, with sufﬁcient funding mobilized and a foundational framework established, ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, came into being.
Nuts and bolts for a new network
An important history lesson was that if the cities were to be convinced and motivated to undertake this work over a long period of time, they themselves would have to be engaged, committed and empowered. The responsibility for running the network could not rest solely on the shoulders of a committee of distinguished writers. Hard working volunteers allied with municipal civil servants were the new ICORN avant-garde.
The governance model with the general assembly of member cities as ICORN’s highest organ and the elected city delegates constituting its executive board, secured organizational efﬁciency and ownership among the doers and movers on the ground.
In this way, positive energy was released from day one. Win/win situations emerged; the more the city invested in protection and promotion of their hosted ICORN writers-in-residence, the more they gained.
In 2007, six ICORN cities joined in a large 5 year EU project to promote all writers and artists in the network. Frequent regional and national encounters, and major annual network meetings catered for the exchange of ideas, experiences, challenges and successes among all involved parties.
ICORN took another signiﬁcant path. By twinning fundamentally with PEN International, the worlds leading literature and freedom of expression organization. From its London headquarters, with 150 affiliated centres in more than 100 countries, PEN International delivered the sustainable assessment and qualiﬁcation regime ICORN needed to serve the increasing amount of applicants and members. As relations between ICORN and PEN International developed, ICORN would also beneﬁt in many other ways from the commitment and energies mobilized by the PEN Centres around the world.
Interdependence, not competition and professional prestige, was the trademark and way forward.
In 2010, ICORN consolidated its structure from that of a loose network to an independent, international membership organization. Interdependence, not competition and professional prestige, was the trademark and way forward. Through durable and fruitful exchanges with an increasing range of partners around the world, a distinct, ﬂexible and sustainable identity emerged: A temporary, long term safe residency system; a small, but indispensable link in the global chain of protection and promotion measures for writers, artists and human rights defenders at risk. When the ICORN General Assembly in 2014 decided to widen its scope to invite nonverbal artists at risk to apply for ICORN residencies, it happened as an organic, legitimate extension of the network’s outreach.
What it is all about
The creation of ICORN and the celebration of its 10 years anniversary would make no sense, or rather, they would and could never had happened, if it was not for the incredible strength, courage and creativity exhibited by the many ﬁghters for human rights and freedom of expression around the world.
It cannot be stated clearly enough: the creation of ICORN and the celebration of its 10 yearsanniversary would make no sense, or rather, they would and could never had happened, if it was not for the incredible strength, courage and creativity exhibited by the many ﬁghters for human rights and freedom of expression around the world. More than 150 poets, journalists, playwrights, bloggers, musicians, publishers, novelists, ﬁlmmakers, cartoonists, editors and other persecuted human rights defenders have found refuge in ICORN cities since 2006. The diverse and creative ways they enrich, inspire and challenge their host communities are indisputable. ICORN writers and artists in residence are continuing to work for change in their home countries, often more comprehensively and effectively than they could before leaving.
The 2015 awards of the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize accentuated major components of ICORN’s work. Both Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus) and Sihem Bensedrine (co-founder of Tunisia’s Human Rights League) were exiled during capital periods over recent decades, and both of them used ICORN residencies (Gothenburg and Barcelona) as base camps for their ﬁght for human rights and freedom of expression in their home countries.
They both have been able to return and continue their work in Belarus and Tunisia. Simultaneously, Palestinian rapper Khaled Harara runs hip-hop workshops for youngsters in Gaza from Gothenburg, Moroccan journalist Zineb el Rhazoui wrote and writes for Charlie Hebdo from ICORN shelters in Ljubljana and Paris, and Libyan poet and academic Ashur Etwebi ﬁghts for the future of his country from his ICORN residency in Trondheim.
“Could the city, equipped with new rights and a greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility previous undreamt of by international law?” Jaques Derrida, 1995.
Inaugurating the original network back in the 1995, Jacques Derrida asked: “Could the city, equipped with new rights and a greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility previous undreamt of by international law?” Twenty years later, we can at least start to see excerpts of a new order coming through: “Let us be the ones that make the change. Let us be the ones that are the welcomers”, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said last November. And upon signing the ICORN agreement a month before, Wroclaw Mayor Rafal Dutkiewics stated: “Especially in times like ours, when nations are put under pressure by unprecedented political challenges, it is important that cities can step forward underlining the values of hospitality and solidarity.”
The last word goes to Paris’ Mayor Ms. Anne Hidalgo: “Throughout the 20 th century, the City of Paris has been host to exiles from around the world, for intellectuals and artists. The values of human rights and freedom of expression is 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.”