UN HRC: Artistic expression must be protected

UN HRC: Artistic expression must be protected - Civic Space

A mural by an unknown artist.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the joint statement stressing the importance of the right to freedom of expression, including in the form of art, delivered on behalf of more than 53 States at the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council. 

“The right to freedom of artistic expression is increasingly under attack”, said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “It is a small but significant step that States from across regional groups at the UN have publicly committed to keep this issue on the Human Rights Council’s agenda.”

The joint statement, delivered by the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the United Nations and supported by a total of 53 States, stressed that international human rights law protects artistic creativity as part of the fundamental human right to freedom of expression.

The joint statement observes how “artistic expressions and creations come under attack because they convey specific messages and articulate symbolic values in a powerful way.” The statement emphasises that the suppression of political dissent, and of different values or beliefs, is not a legitimate basis for censorship – noting that such censorship most affects women, and persons belonging to minorities.

The group of States behind the statement strongly condemned violations of the right to freedom of expression in the form of art – including through murders, beatings, threats, as well as through the abuse of criminal laws and arbitrary detention. It calls on all States to protect against and ensure accountability for these violations.

The joint statement reflects many of the concerns raised at an ARTICLE 19 event at the UN in Geneva in March 2015. During that event, artists highlighted diverse challenges – from limits on accessing and using resources, to surveillance and over-zealous copyright-enforcement. They called on the Human Rights Council to act.

Zunar, a political cartoonist speaking at the event, was arrested after his return to Malaysia and charged with 9 counts of “sedition” for a single tweet. He faces up to 43 years in prison, and his case is emblematic of how this issue merits urgent international attention.

However, seeking agreement between UN States on the importance of freedom of expression often proves divisive. At the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council in June 2015, a draft resolution on “freedom of expression in the form of art” was withdrawn after it became clear that further discussions were needed in order to reach a consensus position.

The joint statement delivered at the present session provides a strong basis for further discussion and debate on the normative parameters on freedom of expression, including expression in the form of art.

Latvia, Uruguay and the United States of America, also co-sponsors of the withdrawn June draft resolution, led the initiative. Though 53 States had joined at the time of its delivery, it remains open to signature, and ARTICLE 19 encourages all UN States to support it.

The statement

Thank you, Mr. President. This statement is read on behalf of a group of 53 states. 

We wholeheartedly reaffirm the right to freedom of expression. This right is enshrined in Article 19 of the ICCPR and guaranteed to all without discrimination.  Its scope includes creative and artistic expression — as the ICCPR specifically addresses expression “in the form of art.” States Parties to the ICESCR recognize the right, under Article 15, to participate in cultural life and benefit from the protection of interests resulting from one’s artistic production.  Under Article 27 of the UDHR, everyone has the right “to enjoy the arts.”  

We stand firm in our commitment to protect the right to freedom of expression, including artistic and creative expression.  In addition to being an integral part of the protected human right to freedom of expression, artistic and creative expression is critical to the human spirit, the development of vibrant cultures, and the functioning of democratic societies.  Artistic expression connects us all, transcending borders and barriers.

Artistic expression can challenge us and change the way we view the world.  Picasso’s painting Guernica and the poetry of Wilfred Owen vividly highlighted the horrors of twentieth-century warfare.  Art can also highlight injustices and inspire opposition to it. Artists from different parts of the world challenged the Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s through their poetry, music and visual arts.

We witness on a daily basis the powerful social and emotional impact of artistic expression.  We are transfixed and moved by Karim Wasfi playing his cello at the site of explosions in Baghdad.  Artists like him all over the world, through their work, are drawing global attention to human rights issues.  They stand in the face of terror, offering a very different narrative — one of humanity, beauty, and hope.

Artistic expression is critical to culture, heritage, and identity.  In Mali, through the Timbuktu Renaissance Initiative, musicians and other artists are working with the government to revive and strengthen Mali’s rich arts and culture.  We welcome this good practice, in response to efforts to destroy the country’s artistic heritage.

Those who suppress artistic expression fear its transformative effect.  We have seen artistic expressions and creations come under attack because they convey specific messages and articulate symbolic values in a powerful way.  There are many reasons used, wrongly, to silence artists, to quell their music, to hide their works from the world.  Reasons for censorship include the suppression of political dissent and of different values or beliefs.  Women and persons belonging to minority groups are often affected most.

Artists in many parts of the world are facing violations of their human rights. In some cases, artists are even murdered, beaten, facing death threats, arbitrarily detained, their work censored or criminalized, their art and instruments destroyed.  We condemn such violations.  We strongly believe that reactions to controversial artwork should be expressed not through violence but through dialogue and engagement that are based on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  States must protect against and ensure accountability for violations of the right to freedom of expression.

We will continue to defend the right to freedom of expression, including artistic and creative expression, wherever it is threatened.  

We believe that this important topic merits the continued engagement of this Council and we look forward to doing so in a constructive manner.

Thank you Mr. President.

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