#100PENMembers No. 86: Philippe Sands

Philippe Sands is a British and French barrister, academic and author who specialises in international and human rights law, and has been President of English PEN since 2018, having served on the board of English PEN for five years prior to this appointment.

Sands has written seventeen books on international law including East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity(2016), which won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and his latest book The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trial of a Nazi Fugitive(2020) which tells the story of Otto Wächter a Nazi who spent years evading justice.

Sands describes ‘writer-to-writer solidarity – ranging from prison visits to protests, lobbying to letter writing – as being at the heart of what PEN is and what it does.’

One hundred years after its founding, Sands sees PEN’s work as more needed than ever. Writing in the Guardian last year he describes: ‘Our calls on governments across the world to release so many authors, journalists, publishers, poets, bloggers, songwriters and others who speak and write and think, detained in violation of their individual right to freedom of expression, need to be louder and clearer and stronger than ever before.’

Sands has written and spoken out about the imprisonment of many writers, through his role in PEN and elsewhere but the incarceration of his close friend the Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan struck a personal note. 

He said of the writer: ‘he is one of the most remarkable and inspiring human beings I have ever known. After four years of wrongful, illegal imprisonment – like living without clocks in endless time”, he told me when I visited him in Silivri Maximum Security Prison – he is home. I celebrate him and his freedom, and all those who made this happen.’

But Sands is also – unusually – active in the realm of international law, serving as a barrister trying cases of human rights abuses in international courts.

He describes, in a speech to the 83rd PEN Congress in Lviv, bring involved in the negotiations in Rome in 1998 which led to the founding of the International Criminal Court, a body which would be able to try these relatively new crimes of ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity.’

As he describes ‘the gates of international justice creaked open, after five decades of quiescence during the cold War chill that following Nuremburg.’ He was then involved in cases from the former Yugoslavia, from Rwanda and then swiftly, from the Congo, Libya, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Sierra Leon, Guantanamo Bay… Sands speech goes on the trace this work through ‘the man who put “crimes against humanity” into international law, who came from Lviv but who modelled some of his ideas on  #100PENMembers and former PEN President H.G. WellsThe Rights of Man (1940). In addition to his position as current President of English PEN, Sands’ work is firmly entrenched in PEN and PEN in Sands’ work.

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