We think of artists as visionaries, trailblazers, provocateurs, but how often do we think of them as human rights defenders? How often do we hear of attacks on artists and equate them to an attack on free expression? Laura Kauer García, a student on the School of Advanced Study’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, investigates.

There is a growing consensus that artists and cultural practitioners should be acknowledged, supported, and defended in the same way that journalists and human rights activists are for their work towards a more just society. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression until July this year, made this case by dedicating his final report to the topic of artistic freedom of expression. 

Beyond its overview of relevant legal frameworks and common types of violations by states, the report signals that this is no longer a niche issue. Rather, it intersects with many other fundamental human rights concerns such as freedom of opinion, women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, the rights of minorities, and the protection of human rights defenders. 

The field of artistic freedom of expression is a young, but growing area of work and advocacy that brings together human rights organisations, activists, artists, cultural practitioners and the arts sector. In her landmark 2013 report Farida Shaheed, the first Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, highlighted its importance: ‘Artistic expression is not a luxury, it is a necessity – a defining element of our humanity and a fundamental human right enabling everyone, individually and collectively, to develop and express their humanity and world view.’ 

She made it clear that limits to artistic expression affects an entire society, but through censorship, threats and attacks, the impact is greater on artists. In 2019, FREEMUSE (ARTSFREEDOM) reported more than 711 acts of violations of artistic freedom in 93 countries, including nine artists killed and 71 imprisoned. 

A small group of organisations have been working to address the specific needs of artists at risk. For example, FREEMUSE and PEN International are doing monitoring and advocacy, ICORN provides safe haven to artists, Tamizdat and AFI give pro-bono legal support, ARC of PEN America coordinates resources, and Arts Rights Justice organises training and is creating an e-library. 

Their advocacy on behalf of artists has led to free expression organisations and those providing direct support to human rights defenders to start prioritising and highlighting artists. Index on Censorship honours an artist in its annual awards and organisations such as ProtectDefenders.euFrontline Defenders, the Martin-Roth Initiative, as well as more mainstream funders have stepped up to provide urgent grants to threatened artists.  

In this context of growing activity and interest, David Kaye’s highlighting of the right to artistic freedom of expression in his final research report published in July 2020 is another sign that the issue is receiving wider recognition. The report, which lays out the major challenges artistic freedom of expression faces from states, provides an overview of the codification of the right to artistic expression as defined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also underlines how little attention this right has garnered from international and regional legal human rights bodies. 

Artistic freedom of expression is closely linked to the right of opinion, an absolute right that states cannot limit even in exceptional situations, and the right to free expression, which can be limited under certain circumstances. Limitations on artistic expression are often abusive and overwhelmingly target women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community with common charges including ‘indecency, blasphemy, and attacks against public order’. Wisely, the report does not seek to provide an exhaustive or definitive analysis of the subject (instead pointing towards important existing resources). Perhaps its most significant contribution is its acknowledgement of artistic freedom of expression as an issue with broad repercussions for a healthy society that should not be siloed.

The report’s publication was particularly timely in a year when the criminalisation and brutal repression of protests has been increasingly scrutinised. Artists have had a lead role in these dissenting movements, and as a result, have been targeted. In the midst of protests in Chile against inequality and police violence, the performance ‘El Violadores eres tu (The rapist is you) by the collective Las Tesis went viral for its participative denunciation of gender-based violence. 

After Las Tesis published a manifesto with Pussy Riot this year, Chile’s police forces filed a complaint against the group for inciting violence. The Inter-American Committee on Human Rights issued a statement warning that this act of criminalising artistic expression was a threat to the right to freedom of expression. 

Decades of repression and contested election results have fuelled the ongoing protests in Belarus, where artists have been at the forefront both inside and outside the country. Musician Maria Kalesnikava joined the opposition movement as a campaign manager seeking to end President Lukashenko’s 26-year reign. After the contested vote and brutal repression of protests, she was kidnapped and taken to the border where she tore up her passport and refused to leave the country – she has since been detained. The co-directors of the Belarus Free Theater, Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin who have been living in exile in London for almost a decade, have been actively denouncing abuses for years, and calling out the detention of many of the underground theater’s members in Minsk.

David Kaye’s final report is an acknowledgment that stiff definitions separating artists from activists and human rights defenders are meaningless in practice. Whether they identify with any of those three categories, artists have been and are at the forefront of human rights efforts. 

Their perspectives and practices make them important dissenting voices, and threats against them, just like threats against activists, human rights defenders and journalists, are a serious warning sign. 

There is a small sector that has been focusing on artistic freedom of expression, but until there is a wider awareness of the specific threats artists face, they will continue to face risks largely on their own. At a time when dissent is increasingly criminalised, artists’ voices are among the most vulnerable and the most needed.

Laura Kauer García (@LauraSaraKG) is a human rights professional, writer and translator. Previously, she worked for the new initiative Artists at Risk Connection of PEN America, providing urgent support to threatened artists, and worked at Human Rights Watch. She is currently pursuing an MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights with a Latin American Pathway at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her research focuses on the right to free expression, the right to protest, and threats against human rights defenders, including artists and cultural practitioners.

Cover image: Las Tesis by Daniel Barahona via La Tercera