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Artists As Human Rights Advocates

Artwork by Banksy

Artwork by Banksy

I have great news for you! You may be an advocate for human rights and you may not even know it! And that is incredible because the world desperately needs more human rights advocates in this day and age when the culture of fear becomes more and more present and intense. 

Let me tell you more about human rights. They are universal which means that all human beings have them, without any kind of discrimination. They are based on our inherent capacity of being humans and also on the concept of dignity. However, it is a sad truth that despite the fact that all of us have them some of them are incapable of enforcing them. This is where there is work to be done.

I advocate passionately for education about human rights as one of the best ways their enforcement will be improved. It’s hard to claim something if you don’t know you have it, hard to defend something you do not know what it means.

A.Signl from the Captain Borderline crew recently completed this mural in Cologne, Germany to point out the human rights violations in China.

A.Signl from the Captain Borderline crew recently completed this mural in Cologne, Germany to point out the human rights violations in China.

I believe that work can be done in this sense through art. I also believe that artists and those who appreciate art and share it are, in a way, human rights advocates, most likely without even realising it most of the times. Art is fundamentally humane in nature, and taking a close look at it, we see that many values that art promotes are values that are protected and promoted by human rights. Thus, it seems to me that education on human rights can draw inspiration from art.

Art promotes love with burning passion since its beginnings and loves preaches respect, acceptance and tolerance, which are all essential values in the human rights field. Art breaks boundaries and brings completely different people together, preaching non-discrimination. Art portrays the beauty of humans and encourages us to be proud of our humanity and seek to enhance it. Looking at art from the right perspective, it speaks volumes about what human rights are, why they are so incredibly important. Sometimes art even presses where it hurts and reminds us that there is much work left to be done. 

Take literature as an example of human rights education done through art. There is a tendency to be attracted by books with characters that one can relate to. Indeed the greatest books allow us to live in their stories, to be someone else for a while. This is how we learn to see the world through a different pair of eyes and we understand that as different as we all are, we share an essential quality that unites us all, our capacity of being humans. This makes us understand the concept of human rights universality better. Regardless of gender, age, religion, or any other criteria, we are all humans and we are all deserving of fundamental human rights.

There are books telling incredible stories from all parts of the world teaching us that half the world apart from us there are people facing the same struggles as we do. That creates a small connection between us and them. One that has many effects. First of them is awareness; others can include compassion, solidarity, an intense desire to do something.

If you have ever read a book with scenes of torture or where one of the characters was subjected to inhumane treatment and you felt something in your chest, and a feeling of powerlessness you may know well what I am describing. It is worth mentioning here that torture is internationally prohibited, so the feeling of intense revolt you may have experience is, in a way, global.

Awarness is an essential point. As I said earlier, it’s hard to use, defend or promote something you are not aware exists or you are not sure what it means.

Moving on to a different artistic enfironment, music is often said to be the language we use when all language fails. I truly believe this is true. A lot remains undone in the human rights world because of disagreement between certain parties, because certain people fail to see eye to eye and to find a common ground. Music can be seen as a great common ground. Indeed two people may not speak the same language or understand each other in any way, but they may still enjoy the same piece of music and actually experience a similar emotion listening to it.

I have found one of the best examples of the power music has of brining people together and making all differences fade away in a musical piece composed by a Russian composer, inspired by middle-eastern tradition, performed by a Japanese orchestra, conducted by a Swiss conductor. If you want to listen to it please search for Rimsky Korsakov – Scheherazade, The Story of the Kalendar prince.

Moving on from this somehow subtle examples to a clear and very recent one. The two recent artworks of Banksy related to the refugee crisis; one with reference to Les Miserables and one with reference to the heritage of Steve Jobs. The message seems to be clear, do not forget to be humane and to treat others humanly. Another essential value found in the main human rights instruments.

Banksy used Steve Jobs artwork to highlight refugee crisis

Banksy used Steve Jobs artwork to highlight refugee crisis

If the transition is made to theater and movies the it becomes even easier to see the connections and there are many movies that could teach volumes about human rights.

It must be mentioned that one of the areas that still need a lot of work is that of quality between men and women. Indeed, the impact of women as art creators (as opposed to merely art subjects) has been developed rather late. That’s why every artwork created by a woman should be seen as a clear statement in favour of what is already a paramount value of human rights, equality between sexes and non-discrimination.

Art is made by humans, telling stories about humans for other humans to savour its meanings and messages. Art is arguably created from love and many times, that love is directed to humans and humanity. If you are an artist and you works of art preach love, respect, tolerance, acceptance and respect, out loud or subtly, you are a human rights advocate from a certain perspective. If you enjoy art and the sentiment of awe it gives you, the feelings it creates inside of you and you share it for others to see the same, you too are a human rights advocate. 

There is a lot of work still to be done and you can truly make a difference. The road to appropriate universal application of human rights begins with education and awareness about human rights and with people sharing the principles these rights stand for.

Awareness is crucial, I cannot stress this enough. So I encourage you to use this perspective that I have presented to you and promote human rights through art and, why not, vice versa. I doubt that there are many better ways to talk to humans about humans than through art. Education through art has a pronounced note of empirical experience which means it remains longer in the mind because when we experience art that we like, we live it rather than see it.

Alec is a full time writer, dreamer and art lover. He took to writing at age 14 and his latest novel is called A hospital for souls.

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