Supporting The Art of Activism

About Freedom of Expression

What is Freedom of Expression?

Freedom of Expression is the human right of every individual to hold and share opinions and share them through any media without interference. It is a universal right, which means that it applies to every human being, regardless of country, ethnicity, belief, the opinion being expressed, or the way in which it is being expressed.

In the wake of the Second World War the newly-formed United Nations (UN) recognized the importance of securing human rights, and one of its first actions was the unanimous adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) whose principles have been the foundation of numerous treaties, such as the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as the constitutions of many countries.

Specifically, Article 19 of the UDHR declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” and Article 19 of the ICCPR expands on this, specifying that free expression is guaranteed through various media, specifically referring to art. Article 27 of the UDHR and Article 15 of the ICESCR also recognize the right of everyone to take part in cultural life, of which art is a profound part. While the ICCPR does accept certain limits on Freedom of Expression, they are only valid as a last resort when hate and violence are concerned, and no treaty places limits on participation in cultural life.

Why is Freedom of Expression Important?

Nations recognize Freedom of Expression as fundamental to promoting good government by making people’s ideas heard, to the development of knowledge and understanding among peoples, to the development of democracy, to the formation of a vibrant culture, and to social commentary. As US Ambassador Keith Harper puts it, “Artistic expression is critical to the human spirit.”

Indeed the Council of the European Union, representing 28 countries, affirmed in 2014 that Freedom of Expression is “indispensable for individual dignity and fulfilment.” Freedom of Expression is seen, then, to be a human right which is absolutely necessary for the development of individuals, the countries in which they live in, and the world as a whole.

What is an Activist Artist?

An Activist Artist uses their work to promote positive social change. Authors, musicians, painters, performers, and other artists throughout history have used their unique gifts of symbolism to call attention to the most important issues of their time. Whether it is Chinua Achebe drawing attention to the effects of imperialism, Ai Weiwei’s work demanding human rights in China, or street artists around the world raising the concerns of the marginalized, Activist Artists have had an undeniable role in shaping the world we live in today.

By using their work to enact change, Activist Artists represent groups throughout the world whose voices would otherwise not be heard. They use their talents to express the concerns of the many, amplifying their voices through their art.

Freedom of Expression and the Law

The first line of defense in the fight for Freedom of Expression consists of individual countries. As representatives of their citizens, states have the duty to protect the undeniable human right to Freedom of Expression, done through their constitutions, the creation of laws protecting Freedom of Expression, and the maintenance of a fair justice system.

Other than their individual obligations, countries are bound by the international system to protect human rights, including the right to Freedom of Expression. International agreements and treaties such as the UDHR (Articles 19, 27), ICCPR (Article 19), and ICESCR (Article 15) ensure protections for Activist Artists under international law, as well as regional agreements and treaties like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Human Rights Declaration (Article 23), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Article 9) the Organization of American States Declaration of Principles on Freedom ox Expression, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Article 11).

What Happens When Countries Fail to Protect Freedom of Expression?

States, however, do not always follow through on their obligations to defend Freedom of Expression. When this is the case, two major groups of external actors step up in the defense of Activist Artists: other countries through the international system, and concerned people throughout the global community.

Groups such as the United Nations and the members of regional agreements can punish states for violating treaties and agreements regarding Freedom of Expression, revoking diplomatic and trade benefits or even cutting off relations entirely in response to human rights violations. While this is often only the case in response to repeated, harsh violations, global institutions like the UN and its regional counterparts provide forums for states to pressure each other into undertaking human rights reforms.

The other and perhaps most powerful voice in supporting Activist Artists and defending Freedom of Expression is the global community. Individuals protect Freedom of Expression through voicing their resolve in the defense of Activist Artists and pressuring countries to live up to their commitments to Activist Artists and their people as a whole. The “Our Work” page on this site shows just some of the successful actions by concerned activists which have been successful. Where Activist Artists have the gift of their talent and work to enact change, the entire world has the capacity to call upon anyone denying Freedom of Expression and demand change.

The Voice Project works to support Freedom of Expression and Activist Artists wherever they are threatened, drawing upon the global community of activists to ensure the protection of the fundamental human right of Freedom of Expression. As Activist Artists provide a voice to the world’s most important issues, we aid them by amplifying the voice of activists around the world in their support.