Philippe Sands’s Diary: A death in Istanbul, tears in Leeds, and a New York hymn to human rights

The similarities with the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury seem striking, as is the silence of Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt.

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The week opens with the new academic year at UCL, completing an arbitral award, and an early morning appearance on the Today programme to discuss the Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, who entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul but apparently never left. The BBC’s chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, authoritative as ever, says things are becoming more dangerous for writers and journalists. As the facts aren’t yet clear – although they look terrible – I try to be cautious. Yet the similarities with the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury seem striking, as is the silence of Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt. Money buys silence in modern British government, the Brexit-induced desperation for contracts and trade arrangements palpable. A few hours later Jeremy Hunt puts out a single tweet, apparently in reaction to the programme, a sharp contrast to the government’s complaints about the Russians.

Identity parade

Tuesday’s highlight is the joy of introducing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at an event at the British Library, as recipient of the 2018 PEN Pinter Prize. She is incredibly inspiring, in all ways, and even more so in person. Her lecture on identity is topical, a response to a question she is often asked – does she see herself as an African writer? Identity is the issue of our day, back with a vengeance in modern politics across the globe, as nationalism in Britain and white supremacism in the US cause both countries to lead the charge against multilateralism and a rules-based legal order. Chimamanda selects human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair, imprisoned in a Saudi jail, as the PEN Pinter Writer of Courage, with whom she will share her award.

Later she signs a copy of her fine lecture, elegantly printed up by Faber & Faber, adding a dedication for Ahmet Altan, my Turkish novelist friend, who I visited in prison earlier this year. He has been locked up for life for speaking a few innocuous words on a TV show. How ironic that Turkey’s President Erdogan should now be the one to raise the alarm about the treatment of a writer on his territory.

City of culture

On Thursday I am in Yorkshire, to deliver a lecture for the splendid Opera North and Leeds University. My themes are the individual and the group, “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”, and I am accompanied by Guillaume de Chassy, a pianist with whom I have worked for several years. It never ceases to amaze me how music enhance the power of words; a few bars of Bach can induce weeping even in the most robust of characters.

It’s my second visit to Leeds in less than a month, as our youngest daughter has started studies at the history faculty. There is nothing nicer in life than a full day with one of your children, who has reached an age at which being seen in public with a parent is no longer a source of embarrassment. We wander the streets, enjoying the mix of old and new – the coffee at Laynes, the fabulous vaulted ceiling of the renovated Corn Exchange. We visit the sublime Leeds City Gallery and linger in the Travelling Man comic shop, chatting to the bookseller, who directs us to The Corbyn Comic Book, a copy of which we buy. The bookseller is fantastically rude about the Tories, as are many people I meet in Leeds that day.

Something to declare

On Friday I fly to New York, for an event to mark the imminent 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. These are international instruments of the kind that Theresa May’s government would no doubt like to get rid of, on the grounds that they impose excessive constraints on national sovereignty. I share the stage with a famous German actress and three professional musicians, including the great pianist Emanuel Ax, who are wonderful and terrifying in equal measure. Part of my narration is underscored with piano. “Start speaking on the third bar,” my friend the opera singer Laurent Naouri constantly tells me, but I am too timid to tell him that I don’t really know what a bar is, so I sort of have to guess each time, as he glares at me from across the stage.

Marching orders

In New York I will meet with my editor at Alfred Knopf to receive her comments on the first draft of my next book, trailed by my new BBC podcast and Radio 4 series, The Ratline. It’s a sequel to East West Street, homing in on the disappearance after the war of high-ranking SS officer Otto Wächter, who combined a contribution to the murder of my grandfather’s family with a life of love and family responsibilities of his own. From my editors I learn quite how much more work there is still to do on the manuscript in the year ahead.

There is also a decision to take on whether to join the People’s March for a second referendum in London. I’m inclined to go but my wife, Natalia, isn’t, on the grounds that – however stupid the first referendum was – we can’t have a rerun just because we don’t like the outcome. Yet I sense a road-crash is coming, either no deal or a hopeless deal being voted down in parliament. What then? Change of PM? General election? A second vote? To march on 20 October is, if nothing else, to signal a desire to be close to institutional Europe, and to encourage Labour to show real leadership and put clear water between its position and that of the Tories.

Rights and wrongs

At week’s end information slowly emerges about the appalling fate of Jamal Khashoggi. Someone tells me of rumours that his Apple watch recorded his own demise. Theresa May remains silent. If she could, I sense she’d abolish human rights in their entirety just to be able sell another bullet to the Saudis, or get a half-baked free trade deal with anyone willing to sign, on the grounds it is necessary to keep Britain afloat.

Philippe Sands is a barrister, professor of law at UCL and president of English PEN

This article appears in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war

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