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Statement from PEN International in solidarity with people in Ukraine

Last update: 23 February 2023
Statement from PEN International in solidarity with people in Ukraine
Tomorrow marks one year since the Russian Federation launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. According to the UN, 7,199 civilians have been killed and 11,756 injured, although the actual figures are likely much higher. Many are still reported missing. Over 14 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Over 2.8 million Ukrainians are in the Russian Federation and Belarus; most were forcibly displaced.

On this tragic anniversary, PEN International once again urges the Russian authorities to immediately and unconditionally end their devastating war against Ukraine. Summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, forced deportations all amount to war crimes. The deliberate targeting of residential areas and power stations have exposed millions of Ukrainians to extreme hardship, as they are forced to endure freezing conditions and are unable to access vital services. Nuclear threats are unacceptable. Accountability for war crimes is crucial. All those responsible must be brought to justice, said Germán Rojas, Chair of PEN International’s Writers for Peace Committee.

As Putin’s war against Ukraine rages on, new evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces are coming to light. Sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war, mostly against women, including girls and older women. Family members have at times been forced to witness the crimes. Survivors must be granted access to justice, while being protected against re-traumatisation or other harm, said Zoë Rodriguez, Chair of PEN International’s Women Writers Committee.

Writers and journalists targeted, kidnapped, attacked, and killed

At least 13 Ukrainian and foreign journalists and media workers have been killed since 24 February 2022 while carrying out their professional duties. On 28 November 2022, DNA analysis confirmed that the body found in grave N.319 in the woods of Izium, Eastern Ukraine, was that of Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vakulenko. News that he had been abducted first emerged in April, but information about his fate was only made possible after the Ukrainian army recaptured Izium from Russian forces.

In territory controlled by Russian forces and affiliated armed groups, citizen journalists and human rights activists continue to be kept behind bars on politically motivated grounds. Crimean Tatar citizen journalist and activist Server Mustafayev is notably being held in the Russian Federation, in flagrant violation of international law.

PEN International emphatically condemns the threats to the lives and safety of writers and journalists resulting from the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and calls for those responsible to be brought to justice. The Russian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those held solely for peacefully expressing their views. The international community should increase support to ensure media sustainability in Ukraine and do everything in their power to enable Ukrainian journalists and media in exile to continue their work, said Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

 Crimes against cultural heritage

Museums, libraries, and archives across Ukraine have come under sustained attack. Russian forces are deliberately destroying historical sites and looting and smuggling cultural goods, crimes that the Ukrainian authorities have described as an attack against their very identity. As of 1 February 2023, UNESCO had verified damage to 238 cultural sites. In the occupied areas of Ukraine, ‘Russian standards’ are being imposed in local schools, with the teaching of Ukrainian language, history and literature being phased out.

PEN International is alarmed at the scale of destruction and looting of Ukraine’s invaluable cultural heritage by Russian forces and stands with the many artists and cultural actors who continue their work in the face of adversity. As the Ukrainian authorities are working tirelessly to protect their cultural heritage, special attention must be paid by the international community to support Ukraine in documenting such attacks. Culture must be at the heart of reconstruction and recovery efforts, said Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, Chair of PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee.

Ukrainian resolve

Despite the most challenging circumstances, PEN Ukraine is pursuing its ground-breaking work: #DialoguesOnWar, Words and Bullets, Here-And-Now: Stories of Journalists at War, #SolidarityWords and a range of photo exhibitions, amongst other things, all aim to capture the experiences of war and counter Russian disinformation.

Culture does not come when ‘all other issues are solved’. It does not come when security is granted, and when comfort is guaranteed. Culture is an existential response to our deepest experience as human beings, often when we navigate between life and death. War is evil, but culture is often one of the rare chances we have to overcome the existential silence produced by war. Ukrainian culture today struggles against the enemy, as does the whole society, but I do believe that this struggle will lead not only to the victory of Ukraine and the free world, but also to the victory of life against death. Culture cannot spare us from pain – but it can help human beings be victorious in their struggles, said Volodymyr Yermolenko, PEN Ukraine President.

Today, we reiterate our support for our friends at PEN Ukraine and everyone affected by the war in Ukraine. Our message to the international community is clear. States must support all efforts to ensure accountability for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law committed in Ukraine, and work collectively towards provision of remedy, redress and reparation for past violations and the prevention of further violations, said Burhan Sonmez, PEN International President.