More Cities of Refuge needed across the world

The IFACCA board member, Staffan Forssell, Director General of the Swedish Arts Council made the following statement about the need for an increased number of Cities of Refuge, at IFACCA’s European Chapter meeting in Oslo, Norway, on 9-11 September 2015, hosted by Arts Council Norway. 

I would like to take this opportunity to express my concern about the silencing of artistic voices that is taking place around the world. Protecting the possibility for artists under threat to be able to express their art is an ever more essential part of an open, democratic society.

Freedom of expression is at the core of Swedish cultural policy objectives, reading: 

  • Culture is to be a dynamic, challenging and independent force based on freedom of expression
  • Everyone is to have the opportunity to participate in cultural life
  • Creativity, diversity and artistic quality are to be integral parts of society’s development

To be able to obtain these goals, it is crucial that the freedom of artistic expression and creativity is protected. Doing this by offering safe havens for threatened artists can also generate a diversity of artistic expression and creativity.

Writers and artists are especially vulnerable to censorship, harassment, imprisonment and even death, because of what they do. The thoughts, ideas, debate and critique that they express and bring to a wider audience constitute a prerequisite for a democratic society. They are also found among those who speak out and resist when freedom of expression is threatened.

The member states of the European Union have reason to be proud that our ministers of culture have come together to express their unanimous belief that artistic freedom and freedom of expression stand firm and unflinching at the heart of our common European values. But we should also reflect upon what this statement means for our own practice.

Arts councils and culture agencies in Europe - and around the world - have an important role to play in protecting the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity. Joint efforts to protect the rights of artistic practitioners, who constitute the backbone of the arts and culture, could decrease the number of writers, artists, human rights defenders, musicians, actors, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, translators and others working within the artistic field, who are censored, harassed, threatened, imprisoned, and killed.

One way of protecting writers and artists that are no longer able to express themselves safely in their own environment is promoting an increased number of Cities of Refuge around the world. Europe has and will keep playing an important part in this. Since 1994 a network of European cities offering shelter to writers in need of protection has been active in different shapes. In 2006 the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) was founded, and has its base here in Norway, in Stavanger. The organisation draws up a list of persecuted writers and artists who may be offered a safe haven in any of the connected cities. ICORN consist of its member cities. Today more than 50 cities around the globe offer a safe space where writers and artists at risk can live and work through the ICORN programme. Most of these cities are in Europe, but there are also Cities of Refuge in Mexico and the Unites States of America. Artists who are given shelter in a City of Refuge, for a period of up to two years, are able to continue working and spreading their message, without an immediate threat of harassment, imprisonment or death.

The Swedish Arts Council has, since 2011, been assigned by the Government to promote an increased number of Cities of Refuge in Sweden. As part of this we have published a digital manual for Cities of Refuge on our website, we have organised conferences and meetings on the topic and brought up the need for an increased number of Cities of Refuge in dialogue with key stakeholders from local authorities and organisations. The mission also includes promoting the possibilities for the writers and artists in the cities of refuge to gain publicity and take part in public events. The Swedish Arts Council has a special grant to this end, distributed twice yearly. Recently this grant was awarded for the national coordination of the Cities of Refuge in Sweden.  

ICORN was initially a network for threatened writers. They cooperate successfully with PEN international and other organisations to identify writers at risk. The Swedish Arts Council has advocated opening up the ICORN system to include other artists and we are pleased that as of 2014, the system has been opened up to include other artists, such as visual artists and musicians, for a trial period of four years. Thus far the main number of applications for safe havens within the ICORN system has come from writers, and this trend continues.  

There may be a need to identify or create international systems to identify and reach out with information to threatened practitioners within other artistic fields.   Perhaps this is an area in which we who are present at this meeting and IFACCA at large could find ways to cooperate? An exchange of knowledge between arts councils and culture agencies internationally could possibly promote practitioners in other art forms to be reached by the ICORN system and be protected from abuse. Ultimately, this is also likely to encourage artists in other fields to express themselves – even in the face of repressive regimes, which can only benefit the democratic values that are at the core of the European Union.

It has been noted in a bill to Parliament in Sweden that increasing the number of cities of refuge could also generate synergies between cultural policy and aid policy. Promoting democratisation and human rights is an integral part of Swedish international development cooperation. With the possibilities that the Internet offers, writers or artists in safe havens can, in many cases, reach an audience in their country of origin, to which they were denied access before they left. There is a need for cities of refuge - to protect threatened writers and artists and allow for them to continue their practice. This is their main purpose. But they can also bring diversity of expression, inspiration and courage to people living in the city and country that offers protection.

I would like to believe that the Swedish Arts Council has been partially responsible for the increased number of Cities of Refuge in Sweden over the past couple of years. I am pleased to announce that as of June this year, Sweden is the country with most cities of refuge in the world, with 16 cities or, in some cases, regions, connected to the ICORN system. In June this year, the Swedish Parliament called on the Government to act to further increase the number of Cities of Refuge in Sweden. The Swedish Arts Council can be expected to be given an expanded role in this work by the Government as early as next year. We also have a government mission to promote the role of culture in freedom of expression and democratisation in international affairs. Thus, this presentation can be seen as an offer to all present to cooperate with us to promote an increased number of Cities of Refuge internationally.

Offering protection to those who are under threat is a basic condition of humanity. Simply questioning this has consequences for one’s own society and one’s own freedom of movement. So let us join forces and offer protection to those who are threatened around the world because of what they express or how they express it. Firstly and most importantly because the need is great, and being democratic societies requires us to protect democracy. But also to experience and learn from the diversity of artistic expression and creativity that comes with offering this protection. Enhancing the freedom of expression, offering safe havens to threatened artists will also contribute to a cultural climate that enriches us all. 

Header logo