- We have just been hit at the heart of our liberty, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said on 7 January 2015, when two terrorists had broken into the editorial meeting of Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people in cold blood. Only weeks later, the slaying of Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy was the first of a series of murders of Bangladeshi bloggers in the months to follow. These are brutal reminders that basic values of our society cannot be taken for granted. Simply standing up for freedom of expression can put you at great risk, be it in Paris, Dhaka or anywhere else in the world.
We have also seen strong examples of solidarity with the victims and strengthened global awareness for human rights. And the survivors do not give in: One of the main targets of the Charlie Hebdo attack, ICORN writer Zineb El Rhazoui, continues to fight for women’s rights and freedom of expression, defying severe threats against her life. Many of us heard her strong story during the “Creative Resistance” ICORN Network Meeting in Amsterdam in May.
Sadly, in 2015, for the first time, we lost an ICORN applicant, before we were able to offer him an invitation to an ICORN city. The Bangladeshi blogger Ananta Bijoy Dash had figured on extremists’ death list, and after serious threats, he saw no alternative but to apply to ICORN. Very tragically, shortly after, on 12 May, he was hacked to death in Dakha.
While ICORN received around 70 applications from writers, artists and human rights defenders at risk in 2014, the number rose significantly in 2015. The present high level of threat for bloggers and journalists in Bangladesh is one explanation, but fighters for freedom of expression have been exposed to severe persecution also in Syria, Burundi, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia and many other countries this year. Until this date, 109 applications have reached the ICORN office, and unfortunately, we do not expect any seasonal break by the end of the year.
Luckily, in response to the harsh realities of today’s world, ICORN cities have made an all time effort, offering refuge for as many as 27 writers and artists at risk in 2015. This represents almost a doubling of the numbers from 2014, but with the needs for protection so blatant and the waiting lists still mounting up, we are all working together to see that the positive trend will only increase in the years to come.
- Could the city, equipped with new rights and a greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility previous undreamt of by international law? This is the French philosopher Jacques Derrida speaking, inaugurating the city of refuge movement 20 years ago. His request feels even more timely and acute today, with the horizon of the refugee and migration wave challenging the entire world order: Could cities, and may be especially ICORN cities, play an increasingly active role, when atrocities of war in Syria and elsewhere forces millions of people to break up and seek safe havens farther away?
- Let us be the ones that make the change. Let us be the ones that are the welcomers, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto stated on 21 November. His city took up the challenge and joined ICORN in 2015, followed by the cities of Oaxaca, Linköping, Lucerne, Eskilstuna, Ithaca NY, Wroclaw and Uddevalla. - 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 Wroclaw Mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz said upon signing the agreement with ICORN in October 2015.
ICORN is about defending and celebrating freedom of expression, but also about saving life. And sometimes life’s fragility and the brutality of exile comes to the forefront. Our dear and distinguished writer, journalist and human rights activist Chenjerai Hove passed away on 12 July 2015, only 58 years old. He was forced to leave Zimbabwe back in 2001, and fought a sharp edged and creative battle for human rights and political change in is dear home country since. He was a continuous source of knowledge and inspiration for his colleagues in the ICORN network from its very beginning. Still exiled upon the time of death, his message of defiance against any oppressive dictator lives on, also when good forces united and managed to bring him to rest in his beloved Zimbabwean soil. The magic of his creation will be with us for ages, let us listen to him again in the poem printed below.
Friday 13 November, Paris was hit by another terrible act of terror. 130 people lost their life, and the country was put under emergency laws for months to follow. All the more impressive and encouraging is the fact that Paris refuses to give in; human rights and freedom of expression is its main agenda for the first half of 2016. When ICORN is generously invited to convene its general assembly and celebrate the network’s 10 year’s anniversary in the City of Light 30 March – 1 April, it will mark a unique new step in the development of our organisation, and provide wonderful opportunities to continue and strengthen our common fight for solidarity, creativity, hospitality and freedom of expression.
by Chenjerai Hove
when the police come
and their whip dances on your back
refuse to yield.
when the scorpions come
and sting your eyes and ears
refuse to comply.
when the world whirls round
in the torture chamber
refuse to let your heart wither.
hear the voices of children
see the colours of our music
and dance in the death of devotion.
when the powerful receive titles
and the weak take crumbs of power
refuse to kneel by the footpath of deceit.