''The Writer and Human Rights'' was the subject of a congress of 70 writers from around the world who met at the University of Toronto in 1981 to discuss censorship, terrorism, human rights, and other aspects of the writer's relationship to politics and society.
This anthology, which includes about one-third of the speeches delivered at the congress, is dedicated to eight writers who could not be there, who had suffered the increasingly ''typical'' fates of censorship, exile, torture, imprisonment, or ''disap-pearance.''
Among its contributors are Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Jacobo Timerman, Allen Ginsberg, the French writer Michel Tournier, the West German writers Hans Christoph Buch and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and the English novelist Alan Sillitoe. Proceeds from the book will be donated to Amnesty Interna-tional.
In his opening statement, ''Writers and Prison,'' Thomas Hammarberg, secretary-general of Amnesty International, sets forth his organization's principle of impartiality: to protest human rights violations ''irrespective of the color of the responsible government: military or civilian; socialist or capitalist; Islamic, Christian, or nonreligious. . . . Different standards for different regimes would compromise the very foundation of our work: that all human beings are entitled to the same freedoms and rights. This means we would also be concerned if opposition groups or other nongovernmental entities violate these rights.''
The wide range of opinions voiced in the brief but thought-provoking essays in this collection reflect a similar commitment to impartiality. South African dissidents who have seen their government silence criticism and Latin Americans who have watched their friends and colleagues ''disappear'' by the thousands have come to consider the ''word'' of the committed writer a revolutionary instrument, whether as a call to resistance or as a simple assertion of truth in a world of official lies. Writers who have witnessed the results of real-life revolutions in Eastern- bloc countries tend to subscribe to the views expressed by Orwell-biographer George Woodcock:
''Revolutions are not realizations of the idealistic visions of writers; they are sociopolitical eruptions in which the collapse of an existing structure of power creates a vacuum into which many forces rush. . . . The freedom that may have been the dominant desideratum in the prerevolutionary period is the first victim of the struggle for power. And writers and other artists, whatever their roles before the revolution, now appear as challengers - because they represent the free intelligence - to all who seek to impose new forms of power. . . .''
The American poet Carolyn Forche, who went to El Salvador as a free-lance journalist, tries to reconcile the artist's obligations to art with his social and political responsibilites and draws the conclusion that literature is not an either/or proposition. It exists in a formal, aesthetic dimension and a social, moral dimension.
The critic Susan Sontag ponders the related, but somewhat subtler question of whether the writer has rights because he speaks for a repressed collective voice or merely because he speaks as a private voice. Having witnessed the ''self-censorship'' of black, feminist, and anti-colonialist writers in the '60s and '70s, Sontag concludes that the individual writer must finally be true to his or her own perceptions of truth and not censor him- or herself out of deference to a political cause. Insofar as the writer expresses his individual beliefs, be they purely private or in common cause with the oppressed, he will always risk the opposition of his society or of some part of it.