Archive for Human Rights Futures

Art/Law and Human Rights: Dialogues on Being Human

Dakota Porter is a MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On April 9, Columbia Law School hosted visiting professor Amal Clooney in conversation with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, for a discussion on the international legal projects of the United Nations. That same day, in a small space on the 24th floor of a Chinatown office building, artist and educator Pablo Helguera gave a talk with legal scholar and human rights activist Alicia Ely Yamin at Artsy, an organization at the intersection of art and technology.

The conversation between Clooney and the High Commissioner was both realistic (read: frank) and hopeful, but coverage is also due to a topic still fairly under-documented in the field: the relationship between arts, human rights and law.

During the discussion at Artsy, Helguera, a New York-based Mexican artist and museum educator at MoMA, introduced his work, followed by an interrogation of his subject matter and processes with Yamin, a professor at Georgetown University and a UN special advisor.

Artist Pablo Helguera gave a talk with legal scholar and human rights activist Alicia Ely Yamin at Artsy, an organization at the intersection of art and technology. // Dakota Porter

For readers unfamiliar with the concept of “socially engaged art,” it is a relatively new notion: it emphasizes collective participation in an art work and/or its creation, focusing on process instead of product, while at the same time seeking to address social and political issues.

Helguera’s art, for example, is heavily process-based. His 2003 project, The School of Panamerican Unrest,” was a public art piece composed mostly of a cross-continental odyssey by car from the north of Alaska to the furthest tip of Argentina (Tierra del Fuego), mobile school house in tow. Prompted by questions of national identity and migration law, the project incorporated activities within the mobile schoolhouse, which acted as a hub for performances and debates on “Panamerican” values of the XIXth century and related sociopolitical issues.

During the project, Helguera also conducted interviews with the last living speakers of indigenous languages from Alaska and Argentina to incorporate indigenous narratives and perspectives into his work. Through “The School of Panamerican Unrest,” Helguera sought to address the romanticism of travel, national origins and futures, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights, among other concepts.

Helguera’s other projects, such as “Librería Donceles” and “La Austral, S.A. de C.V.,” which opens April 11 at Museo De Los Sures in Brooklyn, are further examples of socially engaged art that aim to raise awareness of human rights issues and promote new visualizations of human rights futures.

In the dialogue that followed Helguera’s introduction, Yamin likened this relationship to the law: In legal discourses, she said, we are asking: “What is law? Is it litigation? Is it practice? Is it institutions?” These questions open up spaces for possible futures for the law, she added. The same is true for socially engaged art; it is creating a new space for the question, what is art? It does this by engaging formerly disenfranchised political actors and interlocutors. This theory of inclusive engagement supports the idea that we all have the potential to be creative subjects. We can all contribute to shaping of the law and our human rights.

Yamin, a human rights activist herself, noted the perilous consequences of our legal processes in our efforts for progress in human rights. On the subject of inclusivity and equality, concepts promoted by socially engaged art through its collective authorship and/or participation, she explained that many of these constructions of inequality are done through the law.

Panamerican Address at the opening of the exhibition Escultura Social at the MCA Chicago, June 2007. // Courtesy of Dakota Porter

In socially engaged art works— like Helguera’s “Librería Donceles,” which created a space for Spanish-language used books and donated profits from sales to NGOs for immigrant rights, or “La Austral, S.A. de C.V.,” where participants are invited to hear the narratives of DACA recipients in a Brooklyn museum— the potential for creative subjecthood is recognized, while the institutionalized inequalities that hinder human rights work are negated.

In closing the conversation, Yamin posited that one of the objectives of lawyers and litigation is to package narratives in order to achieve certain outcomes. Art, and socially engaged art in particular, recognizes the instrumentalization of these narratives and the subjectivity signified by this instrumentalization.

Helguera’s works and the projects of other socially engaged artists demonstrate the creative potential of our narratives in cultivating new futures, specifically more equal and dignified human rights futures.

Dakota Porter is a MA student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the intersection of socially engaged art, law, and human rights. She has researched these issues in Kentucky, New York, Morocco and Guatemala. She currently works in Public Programs at PEN America, an organization at the intersection of literature and human rights.

Human Rights Futures

By Ayesha Amin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.P.A. candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs

Is the human rights movement on the road to nowhere? Last Thursday, the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures,” edited by Stephen Hopgood, Jack Snyder and Leslie Vinjamuri. The book brings together 15 mainstream human rights scholars and their critics to debate alternative futures for the human rights movement.

The panel conversation was moderated by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and included four contributors to the book: Jack Snyder, Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University; Shereen Hertel, editor of the Journal of Human Rights; Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; and Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice at SOAS, University of London. Other panelists included Aryeh Neier, co-founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations; Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division; and Sarah Mendehlson, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.  

The International Criminal Court in 2010 // josef.stuefer // Flickr

The discussion between these human rights experts quickly zeroed in on the growing strategic backlash against the human rights field. This phenomenon takes many forms, from the rejection of the International Criminal Court by some countries in Africa to the delegitimizing of activists as “foreign agents” in Russia and creation of counter-norms in President Putin’s defense of “traditional values” against multiculturalism, feminism and homosexuality. Typically viewed as a problem confined to authoritarian and transitional states in the Global South, recent events in the U.S., U.K. and Europe demonstrate that the West is not immune. As Whitson described it, the present moment we find ourselves in is “bad, apocalyptically bad, with a unique feature of being cheer-led by an authoritarian White House.”

The panel was asked whether this represented a historical regression, or just the usual arm wrestling between governments and their critics? The “spiral model” in theories of human rights promotion, after all, anticipates some degree of backlash. Cooley argued that what makes the current backlash different is that it is not confined to the international human rights architecture. It is geopolitical in nature and aimed against the global governance architecture established in the 1980s and 90s. Mendehlson, from her experience at USAID and the U.N., agreed, adding that it is not just human rights groups under attack, but also environmental and humanitarian groups. “We are seeing the entire business model of external funding to local groups being questioned, and often under the cover of sovereignty.”

Protestors march against Trump in Melbourne // Corey Oakley // Flickr

What has caused this backlash? Mendehlson thought the overly legalistic approach of the international human rights movement had resulted in a disconnect between the efforts of international organizations and local populations. “Elevating the local voice is critical,” she said. Vinjamuri queried whether international human rights organizations, especially those headquartered in the United States, engendered a degree of suspicion among the local population. These organisations are often seen as representing the long arm of the U.S. government, closely aligned with U.S. foreign policy and potentially also with its intelligence agencies.

The growing localization of universalistic human rights language is one of the alternative approaches to human rights advocacy considered in the book. It reduces the risk that human rights advocates will be labelled “handmaidens of imperialism.” Whitson said she had observed this process first-hand. “Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has spent time becoming local organizations in the countries we are working in.” As a result, HRW now spends less time convincing local audiences of its neutral credentials and more time on the important work of rights advocacy.  

The relationship between international and local groups is also more nuanced now. Neier described it as symbiotic. Hertel observed that local groups strategically use their alliance with international organizations to their advantage, focusing on where the expertise and resources lie.  

Columbia University hosted a book launch and panel discussion on “Human Rights Futures” in November. // Ayesha Amin

The panel ended with some final observations on how the human rights movement should adapt to our new reality. For example, how can we achieve human rights in places where the old playbook of “legalism, moralism and universalism” is not available to us, or no longer works? Synder argued that the necessary conditions for successfully achieving human rights outcomes are peace and democracy. His prescription for struggling human rights advocates today? Engender mass social movements in connection with a progressive political party.

Neier thought Snyder overstated the connection between democracy and human rights. He observed that in countries at the point of democratization, ethnic nationalism often becomes a more significant force than it was previously. “It is not accidental that the democratization of Myanmar has been accompanied by horrendous abuses against the Rohingya,” he said. What is required is to have respect for human rights principles baked into the transition process, because the aftermath might be too late.

Ayesha Amin is a New Zealander currently pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in International Security Policy. She holds a graduate degree in international relations and human rights, an L.L.B., and a B.A. in economics. Her interests include contemporary critiques of human rights, corporations and human rights compliance, and the right to self-determination. Ayesha is a blog writer for RightsViews.