Writers on Rights

We launched our Writers on Rights series in 2008 with the Argentinian writer Andres Jaroslavsky, who talked about his book The Future of Memory, a collection of accounts by children of the disappeared in Argentina. Since then our speakers have included Maureen Freely, Jasvinder Sanghera, Brian Chikwava, John Kampfner, William Parry, Adania Shibli, Philip Barclay, Zoya Phan, Ayo Akinfe, Nick Gray, Roma Tearne, Shaun Attwood, Laila Sumpton, Susan Wood, Sai Murray, Pat Borthwick, Paul Adrian, Rob Evans, Andrew Hodges and Uri Gordon. Two of these events were part of the York Literature Festival.

Uri Gordon on the Israeli-Palestinian Problem

This talk by a leading political activist from Israel talked in depth about the many issues faced by Palestinians and Israelis alike and the difficulty that both faced in coming together in creating a more positive future.

Stressing the asymmetry between the Jewish government and the Palestinian people, he explained how the current powers that be in Israel are very right-wing and conservative, and this is reflected in the majority of the Israeli population which is obsessed with the idea of being victims – a experience still carried by many Jews since WW2 in Israel and neither forgotten and definitely not forgiven - Gordon used the metaphor of a wound which has constantly been scratched and picked-at and therefore has never healed.

As Uri himself admitted, this talk had no positive end-note and was upsetting in its portrayal of a situation that, realistically, has little prospect of resolution. Being an Amnestonian and therefore often feeling more sympathy for the under-dogs (i.e. the Palestinians) I found it very interesting to hear an Israeli Jew criticise the Israeli government and to feel sympathy for the plight of Palestinians – he explained how in Israel the wars and violence in the Gaza Strip weren’t even reported on many Israelis feeling a sense of apathy towards the Arab population and concern purely for their own nationalistic concerns, which is fuelled by the Israeli media.

Uri also pointed out that the anti-Semitism involved within discussions of the Israeli/Palestinian problem is a case of nothing less than ‘intellectual laziness’ – and that the issue is renowned for its stimulation of stereotypical conjectures. During the question and answer section it was also very interesting to listen to the idea of the similarities between the Israel-Palestine issue and the period of Apartheid in South Africa. All we need now is an Arabic or Palestinian Nelson Mandela – not a big ask, surely?

Uri Gordon’s talk can be summed up by Caroline from York who tweeted that it was an ‘insightful & eloquent talk by Uri Gordon – this guy really nailed some points about Israel-Palestine & New/Future World Order’.

Uri Gordon is a lecturer at Loughborough University. In 2013 he edited a volume of writings about the actions and experiences of anarchists in Israel/Palestine and also details the condemnation faced by both Jewish and Arabic anarchists alike in Anarchists Against the Wall: Direct Action and Solidarity with the Palestinian Popular Struggle.

Andrew Hodges: The Case of Alan Turing

The mathematician Alan Turing, generally recognised as the founder of computer science and the leading scientific figure of Second World War codebreaking, was prosecuted in 1952 under the law which in those days made all homosexual activity illegal. His trial and punishment, and his death in 1954, have in recent years acquired the status of a historic human rights story. As Alan Turing's biographer, Andrew Hodges focussed (at our event on 10 June 2015 at Orillo Studios on Apollo Street in York, which attracted a full house) on bringing out the real human being behind this story, with his very special friends, relationships, words and deeds.

Andrew Hodges was active in the early Gay Liberation movement of the early 1970s and has been involved in the Alan Turing story since 1972. His large-scale biography, "Alan Turing: The Enigma", was published in 1983 and has inspired works of drama, music and film. Personal website: www.synth.co.uk

Rob Evans: Undercover

Rob Evans, the Guardian journalist, and co-author of "Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police", came to speak at the Writers on Rights on 16 October 2014 and led a wide-ranging discussion of the ethics of undercover policing when it intrudes into individuals' personal lives, accountability, legality and the importance of investigative journalism and press freedom.

In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights

In a new departure for Writers on Rights, four Yorkshire poets who contributed to the recently published volume "In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights" read and discussed their work on 22 May 2014 at the Bar Convent in York.

Pictured, from left to right: Pat Borthwick, Sai Murray, Laila Sumpton (who co-edited the book and compered the evening), Kathryn Lund and Paul Adrian.

Shaun Attwood: Hard Time

York Amnesty International group heard a fascinating yet disturbing insight into human rights abuses in US prisons, delivered from an ex-inmate who witnessed them first hand.

Briton Shaun Attwood described shocking accounts of the brutality dished out by both prison guards and fellow inmates onto each other and the alarming lack of protection he found himself in.

Shaun, a self-confessed reformed criminal, is now a writer working to share his story and spread the truth about some of the inequalities he found in the American justice system.

He spoke to a captivated audience at the Bar Convent in York on 13 February 2014, playing clips of his appearance on the television programme 'Banged up Abroad' and answering questions.

"It was just a great honour to be asked by these guys to come speak here. I feel Amnesty International's work really fits with what I'm doing."

Shaun explained during the speech that he usually speaks to schools to educate youngsters but he would be interested in doing more joint work with Amnesty International in the future.

Roma Tearne: The Road to Urbino

Roma Tearne is a Sri Lankan born writer, artist and filmmaker living in the UK. She left Sri Lanka with her family at the start of the civil unrest during the 1960s, subsequently training and working as a painter and filmmaker in Oxford.

The Road to Urbino, her fifth novel, is a story of obsession, love and art set in Tuscany, Sri Lanka and London. It interweaves the lives of two very different men and their love for the women in their lives, set against the backdrop of the heartbreaking horrors of the long-running conflict in Sri Lanka.

On 27 November 2012, we were delighted to welcome Roma to York, where she showed us her exquisite short film 'Letter from Urbino', which explores themes based on the book. This was followed by a lively Q&A, in which Roma discussed her work and her reflections on her homeland, as well as treating us to a reading from another of her novels, 'Brixton Beach'.

"Beautifully written and observed, a richly woven plot. Roma Tearne leads us seamlessly between the intensity of art, love in a warm climate, and acute human suffering" - Jon Snow, Newscaster, Channel 4 News.

Nick Gray: Escape from Tibet

Nick Gray wanted to make a film about the Chinese oppression of Tibetans. Since it was impossible for him to film in Tibet itself he instead filmed the exodus of a group of the many thousands of Tibetans who escape by climbing over the highest mountain range in the world, on a journey through Nepal to India. We were spellbound by this emotional rollercoaster of a film and glad to hear more from Nick afterwards about its making and the fate of those featured in it.

Ayo Akinfe: Fuelling the Delta Fires

On Friday March 30th 2012, York Amnesty International group was delighted to host author & journalist Ayo Akinfe for a lively discussion of his insights into the human and environmental cost of the oil industry in the Niger Delta, the subject of his novel Fuelling the Delta Fires.
Oil industry pollution in the Niger Delta is damaging the traditional livelihoods of farming and fishing, and putting the health of thousands at risk by contaminating water and food sources.
In 2008 two large oil spills in Ogoniland continued for 10 weeks before they were stopped. Shell offered the local community (population 69,000) 50 bags of rice, beans, sugar and tomatoes as “disaster relief” but no proper clean-up or compensation process has taken place. Thousands more spills have occurred over the last decade.
Collusion with the Nigerian government and military protection means that standing up to the oil companies continues to be a dangerous pursuit.
This was a Writers on Rights event and was part of the York Literature Festival 2012

Zoya Phan: Little Daughter

On 29th November 2011 we welcomed Zoya Phan, international coordinator of Burma UK, who gave an impassioned and moving account of growing up in Burma.

Zoya is an ethnic Karen refugee who, as a teenager, was forced to flee her village in the rain forests of Burma following attack by the state army. She spent two years on the run before finding asylum in the UK.

After hearing her incredible story of survival there were plenty of questions for Zoya as she reminded us that much work still needs to be done in her troubled country of birth.

Philip Barclay: Zimbabwe: Years of Hope & Despair

Philip Barclay gave a wonderfully evocative account of his time as a diplomat based in Harare at the time of the notorious 2008 elections. Reading extracts from his book he took us on a journey from the incredible optimism as he left a polling station on a starry night in March 2008 to the sense of despondency as the country descended into inflationary chaos, brutal violence and a cholera epidemic. Using items he'd brought back from Zimbabwe to illustrate his talk, and interspersing his account with moments of humour and levity, Barclay brought alive this beautiful and troubled country.

Adania Shibli: Touch

On March 25th 2011 Palestinian author Adania Shibli delighted an audience with a reading of her novel Touch, a poetically fragmented evocation of a childhood in 1980s Palestine.

William Parry: Against the Wall
The Art of Resistance in Palestine

On November 16th 2010 a packed room welcomed journalist and photographer Bill Parry to talk through his images of artwork and graffiti on Israel's Wall in the occupied West Bank. He showed a thought-provoking array of images interspersed with vignettes of the Palestinian communities affected by the Wall.

JOHN KAMPFNER: Freedom For Sale

As the fifth book event in the Writers on Rights series York Amnesty was delighted to host one of the UK's leading political writers and human rights campaigner John Kampfner on Tuesday 23rd March 2010 for discussion of his latest book release Freedom for Sale and related issues.

The following report is by Emily Gordon, English Literature student at York St John's, who worked alongside York Amnesty International Group in Spring 2010 as part of her Working with Words module.

In the well-crowded hall Kampfner's polite and friendly manner allowed an easy atmosphere in which his insightful knowledge and views were regarded with several nodding heads. In his book John details what he terms the 'pact' between the state and populace, in which people have been willing to trade civil liberties in exchange for an easy life; as he reiterated on Tuesday, the majority of people live: 'life in a hermetically sealed bubble'.

According to John a fear of not wanting to 'rock the boat' or upset the status quo is what most people are subject to, thus as long as states allow individuals the right to pursue private freedoms, such as wealth, education and travel, then the government can continue along its 'merry ways' and civil liberty will perish.

One lady in the audience outlined the seeming futility of the anti-Iraq war marches of 2003 involving millions of people globally, and the disillusionment which followed; the valid point was raised: what does 'rocking the boat actually achieve?

As a second-year university student at York St John, I found this point particularly relevant as a young person attempting to find some footing in a world reeling from the enormous effects of what John deems 'years of globalised glut'. As honest, law-abiding, ordinary people, why should we stick our necks out for the greater good, for our civil liberties, for public freedoms, when it seems little change is brought about anyway? Yet it is exactly this attitude which John Kampfner is attempting to address and ultimately reform; he argues that it is a fantastic time to be active in the UK, and we should begin by reclaiming those public freedoms that have been lost.

Tackled with a wealth of probing questions, John responded with repeated honesty and clarity; when asked: 'what is the solution?' we were implored with a grin to'get out onto the streets of York!' In general the population's docility towards public affairs and freedoms was a point about which John expressed his utter astonishment; we laughed over the reality of John's involvement with the BBC, when he informed us of the repeated short conferences he was held captive to in the hallways, in which bosses would tentatively suggest: 'you are sure of your sources for that last story?'

It is enquiring 'trouble-makers' such as John Kampfner which keep the debate of what freedom truly means held up for scrutiny. Far from dictating his views and opinions without consideration, John was a man, down to earth, highly approachable and open to criticism.'


York Amnesty warmly welcomed award-winning Zimbabwean author Brian Chikwava on Tuesday March 2nd 2010 when he spoke about the evolution of his first novel Harare North. This is his feted debut novel, a dark comedy following the precarious existence of a young Mugabe-supporter who flees Zimbabwe and arrives in England with a cardboard suitcase and £4.

JASVINDER SANGHERA: Daughters of Shame

Jasvinder Sanghera on 27th October 2009, when she read from her book Daughters of Shame and talked about her role in bringing the issue of forced marriage into the public eye and in getting the Forced Marriage Act passed. Jasvinder Sanghera is director of Karma Nirvana, a community based project in Derby that supports victims of domestic violence and honour-based crimes.

MAUREEN FREELY: Perspectives on Turkey

As part of the York Literary Festival, Maureen Freely, lecturer in creative writing at Warwick university, delighted a packed house at York Library with her reflections on Turkey. She grew up in Instanbul and is the friend and translator of Orhan Pamuk, Turkish Nobel Literature laureate. She is involved in human rights work in Turkey for English PEN.

ANDRES JAROSLAVSKY:  The disappeared of Argentina

The disappeared of Argentina

On 18th November 2008 local author Andres Jaroslavsky spoke from his book The Future of Memory, made up of testimonies of children whose parents disappeared or were murdered during the 1976-1983 Argentinian dictatorship. Andres Jaroslavsky's own father "disappeared" in 1975, and the book conveys the ways in which memories shape our existence and view of the world.