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  1. Spotlight on Policy
7 December 2023

The Policy Ask with Daniel Gorman: “We are in a human rights emergency”

The director of English PEN on the erosion of civil liberties, protecting free speech and calling for a ceasefire.

By Spotlight

Daniel Gorman is director of English PEN, a human rights organisations that champions the freedom to write and read, and which is part of PEN International, a worldwide writers’ association. Prior to this, he was executive director of Shubbak, Europe’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture, and co-founder of Highlight Arts, which organised UK-based international arts festivals and events, working with writers in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

How do you start your working day?   

Every morning I do the usual – check my emails and calendar to assess what I’ll need to focus on that day and spend around half an hour reading up on PEN-related news regarding freedom of expression in the UK, and literary highlights from the day before. As we work at the intersection between literature and human rights, that can take me from reading up on specific aspects of UK legislation, to seeing who has published what, to doing background reading on a writer at a moment of risk.

What has been your career high?     

It’s impossible to pick one. Within this role I have the incredible privilege of meeting so many brilliant writers from all over the world who are deeply committed to fighting for the defence and advancement of human rights; it is such an honour. And it is both depressing and inspiring to work on the cases of writers in prison. Depressing as they should not be imprisoned, and because the cases keep coming and are increasing. Inspiring because of those we work with, such as the family of the British-Egyptian writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who has spent much of the past decade imprisoned in Egypt on charges related to his writing and activism. It is such an incredibly difficult situation for him and his family and they have such strength – I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to read his selected works, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, and join the campaign for his release.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?   

Not being able to support writers trying to flee Afghanistan during and following the Taliban takeover was (and remains) incredibly painful. While we were in close communication with PEN International, who did an incredible job in supporting so many colleagues to relocate to safety in other countries, we were not able to get a single writer we supported to safety in the UK, due to the impossible visa hurdles they faced. The failure of the UK Parliament to pass a vote for a ceasefire in the conflict in Israel/Palestine is also deeply distressing – PEN continues to call for an immediate ceasefire, the protection of civilians, including the release of all hostages, and the end of the siege imposed on Gaza.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?    

From my younger self to myself today: “Community is strength, keep trying, and if nobody else is doing it, do it yourself.”

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From a trusted colleague to my younger self: “If you’re not sure, don’t sign it until you’ve done your research.”

Which political figure inspires you?   

Given the work we do, I’ve got to pick the incredible Toni Morrison. A deeply inspiring author, activist for change and thinker, she constantly and consistently used her voice and platform to argue for social justice and human rights for all, in myriad ways and was an honorary vice-president of PEN International for many years. We all owe her so much. We were honoured to host an event during our English PEN centenary celebrating Morrison’s legacy, with contributions from Nadifa Mohamed, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Razia Iqbal and Margaret Busby (who was announced as the new president of English PEN earlier this year).

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?   

We’re very pleased to see the government progressing work to combat strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) – these lawsuits currently have the potential to limit the freedom of expression of all those who publish in the UK.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?   

The undermining of freedom of expression and human rights more broadly in the UK is a major concern. As such, scrapping all legislation or draft legislation that risks contravening internationally-recognised human rights and ensuring robust protection of the Human Rights Act would be a good first step.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?  

Building on the above, we very much hope that a standalone anti-slapp bill will be forthcoming.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?   

It’s hard to point to one single piece of legislation on this. I truly believe that, along with the climate emergency, we are in the midst of an emergency in the erosion of human rights. This is part of a vicious cycle – the climate emergency is being taken advantage of to erode human rights around the world, and the erosion of human rights is leading to a degradation of the environment. The signal that has been provided by the UK and US regarding the possibility to ignore international human rights legislation has been heard loud and clear by authoritarian leaders around the world. Civil society is more needed than ever. There is a need for strong, global work to protect human rights, and anything that is happening to protect this space is vital.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?   

Abolish the hostile environment visa regime, and develop an asylum policy that is humane and welcoming for all those fleeing persecution.

[See also: This Christmas, it is hard to watch as our ancestral lands fragment]

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