The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) in conjunction with Freemuse and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry organized a discussion panel on Friday, March 13 on the sidelines of the 28th Human Rights Council session in Geneva, discussing several forms of suppression of artistic freedoms in the Middle East and North Africa.
The panel, the first of its type to discuss the suppression and confiscation of artists’ freedom and artistic expression in the MENA region, hosted Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights. The panel also featured two Arab artists: Syrian visual artist Sulafa Hijazi and Palestinian-Syrian cartoonist Hani Abbas. The discussion was moderated by Ole Reitov, the founding director of Freemuse.
The panel,, discussed the latest statistics and reports on violations in the sphere of artistic freedoms, giving many examples of the censorship and suppression of artists and various forms of artistic expression in the Middle East and North Africa.
Farida Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights, reviewed the highlights of her 2013 report on the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity. According to her, the efforts of the Special Rapporteur must therefore not only target the protection of artists, but also extend to the protection of artistic freedom beyond censorship. She noted the various challenges to artistic freedoms, which are often subject to suppression and censorship in varied ways by political, religious, cultural, and social authorities alike.
Moderator Ole Reitov praised states that do not censor artistic works, calling on other states to follow their example. He noted that some states had received clear international recommendations on artistic freedoms during the Universal Periodic Review of their rights record before the HRC, among them Egypt and Turkey.
Reitov added that artistic freedoms in the Middle East and North Africa face both state censorship and censorship from various non-governmental actors such as societal leaders and clerics. Moreover, most states in the region do not meet their international commitments to protect these freedoms. For example, hard rock musicians in Iraq are arrested because their music is forbidden there.
Hani Abbas, a Palestinian-Syrian cartoonist, said that art has a sizeable impact on public opinion, noting that after the uprising in Syria he had to think more about the nature of the impact of his art and the public response. He added that his freedom has no value as long as his people continued to anticipate a freedom that has not come. Moreover, he said, this freedom was not free, but came at the cost of leaving the nation. Abbas concluded by saying that “these people outside Syria” have become the only hope to take the suffering inside the country to the UN and the international community.
Sulafa Hijazi opened by saying that she had not categorized herself as a political artist, but that politics had forced itself on her works. She added that censorship comes not only from regimes, but is connected with the general climate in Arab states. Most Arab artists present their artworks in an environment in which liberties are generally suppressed, which creates a context that promotes terrorism and violence.
Hijazi said that during the Syrian revolution artistic expression was one tool that civil society used to convey the gravity of the situation to the international community, but the regime purposefully impeded these efforts using arms, until social media became the sole platform for expression.
Farida Shaheed concluded the panel by stressing that the crisis does not only lie in state censorship, but in the lack of political will to liberate art by regimes that realize the power of art and its capacity to bring change. She added, “Humour is brought by art and regimes are petrified by humour. Darkness goes hand in hand with humour because it is the only way to coop with dramatic situations”
The panel was attended by experts from regional and international rights organizations, as well as representatives of state delegations from France, Australia, the US, Denmark, Ireland, and New Zealand. The Norwegian delegation praised the panel topic and offered a set of recommendations from the Norwegian experience, including one, referred to by the CIHRS during the panel, on the need to create means to discuss instruments for the protection of artistic expression in the HRC, as well as calling on states to initiate a dialogue on the creation of a comprehensive instrument for the protection of creativity and artists that includes a definition of their rights and protection.
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