On February 24, 2015 PEN representatives from Canada, Germany, Honduras and Mexico met with members of the Mexican Senate’s Comisión de Justicia. At the meeting, John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International made the following introductory remarks.
PEN International, founded in 1921, is the oldest human rights/freedom of expression organization in the world, apart from the anti-slavery organization, and PEN Mexico, started in 1923, is one of the original PEN Centres. We have 150 PEN Centres around the world in 110 countries, approximately 30,000 writers, including every Nobel prize winner, but also thousands and thousands of writers that you would not have heard of but are famous in Nepal, or famous in Korea, but not outside. Our membership is concerned by literature, freedom of expression and the relationship between the two. So just to give you an example of what that can mean, we are very concerned about linguistic rights. This is not the topic today, but we feel that linguistic rights and endangered languages are linked to freedom of expression.
You are part of the Americas. When I’m not acting as president of PEN International, I am a Canadian. We share in the Americas the fact that we are probably the most disgraceful of two or three continents when it comes to the destruction of indigenous languages. We have done wrong, again and again, over the centuries by continuing to allow these languages and cultures to be damaged. In Canada we have about 55 indigenous languages — 45 are in danger. I know that the situation in Central America and Mexico is not better. This is a big concern because we believe that losing your language is a very serious form of losing your freedom of expression. This is a scenario in which we hope that all the PEN Centres will work with governments to defend indigenous languages in the Americas.
We work also in schools in Africa. We have all sorts of programs in poorer areas to help students finish school by understanding how literacy can help them. In other words, we try to give poorer people the skills the middle class give themselves.
Our biggest committee is called the Writers in Prison Committee. It was created in the 1960, at a time when governments who wanted to shut us up put us in prison, mainly. Things have become more complicated since then. Now, as in Mexico, they kill us, they beat us up, they threaten us. Or they use very complicated laws in order to silence us.
That’s the purpose of criminal libel: to destroy people, to prevent them from working, to bankrupt them.
Another subject on which we have concentrated is the remaining presence of criminal libel in many parts, particularly in Latin America. In your country I think there are 12 states left which have criminal libel. We think this is enormously important because criminal libel is a leftover of the pre-democratic period. It was put in place precisely to stop freedom of expression. That’s the purpose of criminal libel: to destroy people, to prevent them from working, to bankrupt them. The campaigns against criminal libel are extremely important. We had a meeting yesterday morning with the Secretary of the Human Rights Commission and he assured us of his commitment to moving from criminal libel to civil libel in the remaining 12 states. And I hope the Senate will take the same view of this because you are so based in the states that you have an important role to play.
Over the last seven days we were in Honduras. Dina Meza, the President of PEN Honduras, is here with us. It is a troubled country with an enormous amount of violence against writers, journalists in particular. We met with our independent PEN centre, with writers, and with public officials. Then we were in Nicaragua where the president of the PEN Centre is Gioconda Belli, a very famous writer. We had many public and private meetings. Above all we had a meeting of all the Central American PEN centres, in order develop a Central American strategy. Then, we came to Mexico City, where we held a gathering of 15 PEN centres – from Argentina to Canada – the PEN centres of the Americas, plus Japan and Germany and Britain. One of the documents we have given you is the preliminary strategy we have developed of how we want to proceed in the Americas.
Now, to Mexico, and precisely why we are here. This is our third delegation to Mexico in three and a half years. In the 94-year history of PEN we have never done this before. So you could take it as a great compliment. We are great supporters of Mexico, we are lovers of Mexico. This is a country which quite frankly, from the cultural point of view is one of the most important countries in the world. Whether it’s literature or architecture, theatre or film, this is one of the greatest countries in the world. Unfortunately, from the political and administrative point of view it’s in a problematic situation. We feel that Mexico sits in an absolutely key position in the Americas and if you can’t solve your problems with corruption, violence and impunity this is going to have an increasingly disastrous effect on the rest of the Americas.
I personally talk about what I call an “unholy trinity” in Mexico, of corruption, violence and impunity, with the corruption, in a way, justifying the violence, and the violence justifying the impunity. And then it feeds back into itself.
In fact we can already see in Central America the effects of the last decade in Mexico. We can actually say that what’s happened in Honduras is in part a “bleeding out” of the Mexican situation. We can see it spreading into other countries in Central America and this will continue to get worse. So there is this great destabilizing effect that Mexican problems are having on the rest of the continent. Even if we say that the United States is one of the great culpable parties because of all its [drug] consumers, the longer the corruption, violence, impunity remains here the more it will also have the effect of making the United States into a more problematic country. So you sit in an absolutely strategic place in terms of what needs to happen.
We believe strongly that these are problems that can be easily solved. This is a very strong civilization, with a very strong leadership in many ways. Frankly, your leadership is better educated than most. So it doesn’t make any sense that these problems exist. I’ve read recently, the Senate’s press release on corruption in Mexico. I thought it was very interesting. I must say I don’t think we agree entirely. There was a long list of legislative problems. And, of course, you’re a senate, you do legislation. But we think that there’s a real problem in Mexico in believing that the solutions lie in the creation of normative standards. There are more laws, and more an more special bodies being set up, more an more special groups with special prosecutors and examiners being set up. But, frankly, if none of this leads to a stopping of the killings, arrests and imprisonment of the killers, identification of the corruption at all levels, then it is just legislation. At this point the solution lies in clear action. I personally talk about what I call an “unholy trinity” in Mexico, of corruption, violence and impunity, with the corruption, in a way, justifying the violence, and the violence justifying the impunity. And then it feeds back into itself.
So you’ve reached the stage where a 90 percent impunity rate on crimes against journalists has in effect become an incitement to more violence. Not actually arresting people and putting them in jail – moving the impunity rate from 90 percent down to, perhaps, 50 percent – becomes the cause of further violence. And more legislation is not going to do that.