Drawing the line between the freedom of expression and the prohibition of hate speech

By Fiana Gantheret

Version française disponible ici

Following the tragic events that unfolded in January in Paris this year, a debate linking two principles have re-emerged: freedom of expression on the one hand, prohibition of hate speech on the other hand. The main reason for this is the humongous support and sense of community that arose after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Indeed, more than a million people in France demonstrated in order to say “I am Charlie”, and thereby, to show their “unfailing attachment to the freedom of expression”. Another reason is that in the wave of this attack and the antisemitic one that followed it,  more than 70 judicial proceedings for condoning terrorism and inciting to hate and discrimination were initiated against individuals that voiced support to the terrorists or minimised their actions. Instructions were given by the French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira to national prosecutors to investigate and initiate proceedings against those types of acts:

At a time when France is struck in the heart by terrorism and where the very foundations of democracy are under attack, the public prosecutor must maintain the main principles of the Republic and continue its efforts to protect the freedom of expression, inseparable from democracy.

 Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen proclaim the principles of freedom of opinion and expression which cannot be limited outside the cases determined by law. 

In these times when the nation must display unity, reprehensible words or acts of hatred or contempt made because of religious affiliation must be fought with the utmost vigor.

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A Theatre of War – Setting the Stage for a Critical Reflection on Human Rights Violations in Armed Conflict

By Andrea Breslin and Orla Lehane

“Tread lightly for you tread on my realities”

Irish playwright Connell Morrison’s above reflection, referencing his attempt to bring his stunning interpretation of Antigone to a Palestinian theatre group, highlights some of the ethical dilemmas surrounding the reduction of the complexity of conflict situations into a narrative for theatre. His 2003 adaptation moved the conflict within the play to a contemporary Middle Eastern staging, where the character of Antigone is portrayed as a suicide bomber. Despite rave reviews in Ireland, upon bringing the play to the Ashtar Theatre group based in Ramallah, he discovered that the play did not adequately reflect the situation of those living in the very area that had inspired the piece.

This was one of a number of themes raised as part of the Theatre of War, a three day symposium at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, gathering together artists, journalists and academics to reflect on the world’s most troubling conflicts from a global, contemporary and historical perspective, through the lens of theatre. Just as combatants struggle for control in the geographical theatre of operations during war, multiple memories, voices and ideas struggle and compete to be heard and represented in this space. What role does the theatre play in offering interpretations of conflict? How can those working in theatre respect the individual perspectives, representations, and rights of those caught in conflict zones while creating work that appeals to and engages a diverse range of audiences?

As part of the symposium, the one-woman play Oh My Sweet Land, an “urgent and extraordinary play”, was brought to Ireland for the first time by London’s award-winning theatre, the Young Vic. It explores the ongoing crisis in Syria through stories from a selection of its two million refugees. The show, written and directed by Palestinian writer Amir Nizar Zuabi, and performed by Corinne Jaber, is an outstanding example of a work that deals with the pertinent issues. It weaves the stories of a number of Syrian refugees together in a mesmerising piece of drama, while emphasising the brutality of the war and the effect it has on the lives of those caught up in it: “They call it a civil war, but there is nothing civil in this. Nothing civil at all”.

The play charts one woman’s journey from Paris to Lebanon, into Syria and onto Jordan to track down a friend, Ashraf, among the innumerable Syrian refugees in each country, listening to the tragic stories of violence, chaos and loss experienced by those who have fled.   During the Theatre of War symposium, Zuabi spoke passionately of the important role that theatre plays in contributing to the complex discourses surrounding conflict, describing it as the “most humane” of the arts and the “most intimate” of encounters. It is, he believes, a way to react to the world around us. Oh My Sweet Land does just that, inspired by the stories of refugees that Jaber and Zuabi met in the camps they visited in Jordan. Having, they explain, been inspired particularly by the spirit of those they met and their ability to adapt, the play gives these individuals a voice. The audience learns something of their lives and the effect the war has had on them, the loss of their homes and possessions, the death of family members – husbands, wives, children. The cruelty of their attackers is presented. But ultimately, through individual stories that go beyond reductionist news headlines and media sound bites, those that Jaber encounters on her journey remain human. One little boy she encounters notes with sombre resignation “What happens to all will happen to us”.

Zuabi’s view regarding theatre was echoed by other speakers at the event, with many of those creating theatre in conflict zones speaking the most passionately of its power. ‘Theatre is alive!’ proclaimed Hope Azeda. Azeda works in Rwanda harnessing theatre to explore concerns related to human rights and violence that have stemmed from the genocide in the country, investigating the dichotomy between victims and perpetrators and asking whether the perpetrators of tomorrow could be the victims of yesterday. Theatre allows her to discuss these themes with young people; important, she explains, because, in accordance with an old Rwandan proverb, “you cannot straighten an old tree”.

Based in Serbia, Dijana Milosevic also emphasised the important role that theatre has played in giving a voice to those who have lived through conflict, while noting the complexity of representation. She co-founded DAH Theatre in Belgrade in 1991: inadvertently coinciding with the outbreak of war in the Balkans. Questions troubling Dijana and her colleagues at first were whether or not they had the right to make theatre when there was so much suffering going on around them, and the very existence of suffering in a war that was supposedly being fought in their name. This led the group to creating anti-war theatre and performing in the streets. While their activities generated many difficulties, the performances was also well received with many audiences. The power of theatre as a form of resistance became clear to the group.

The notion of theatre as resistance was highlighted in the Keynote Speech at the symposium, with Professor Luke Gibbons referring to the cultural sphere as the ‘counter public sphere,’ and throughout the three day event the role of theatre as a site of resistance was emphasised. The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, counselled us in his Keynote Speech of the previous Theatre of Memory, also at the Abbey Theatre, to do justice to the complexity of context, to read events critically from any standpoint, and to avoid jeopardizing historical accuracy. Much of this discussion remains relevant to the Theatre of War, which explores conflict from individual perspectives through individual stories, while also attempting to avoid negating the multiplicity of identities in the complex conflicts involved.

Other forms of theatre have similarly attempted to interrogate and engage with the themes of violence, whether structural or individual. One example is the Theatre of the Oppressed, born in Brazil of the ideas of Augusto Boal, combining participatory techniques, aiming to critically engage the structures of power and oppression and reshape them through action.

The Theatre of the Absurd also questions depictions of rational human existence and accepted reality/status quo, exposing the inherent absurdity by portraying a world without logic or morals, avoiding conventional plot and narrative techniques. It embodies a ‘revolutionary attitude’ towards language and convention, portraying the world as an ‘incomprehensible place’ where the audience struggles to comprehend and identify completely with the events or characters involved. The recent outcry surrounding the threat to ‘freedom of expression’ regarding the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris was described as a form of theatre of the Absurd in a recent article, neglecting as it does the structural violence meted out to many countries in the last decade, the retrogression regarding freedom of expression in many European countries, and many other points of contention.

This Theatre of War has a much broader focus, intending as it does to employ the medium of theatre to explore conflict from many different angles and perspectives. Theatre artists from Burundi, Columbia, Syria, Palestine, Rwanda, Ireland and the United Kingdom discussed the challenges of artists responding to conflict. Perhaps a quote from Martin Esslin concerning the Theatre of the Absurd is also fitting for this Theatre of War, which also resists clear-cut resolutions for urgent contemporary issues, and leaves us still questioning: “while the solutions have evaporated the riddle of our existence remains – complex, unfathomable, and paradoxical.” 

Ai Weiwei libère Alcatraz

Ai Weiwei exposé à Alcatraz, Par Marie-Pierre Poulain

La baie de San Francisco, ses péninsules, ses puissants courants marins, luisent sous le soleil de décembre. Sur le grand ferryboat blanc qui nous emmène à Alcatraz, l’île fortifiée se dessine, assez proche, coiffée d’un long bâtiment blanc ponctué d’un phare.

Des mouettes se jouent de l’air pour venir accrocher en planant des offrandes alimentaires, libres acrobates. Nous approchons du ponton, et nous regardons la silhouette de San Francisco, si proche et pourtant inaccessible, la tour Transamerica Pyramid darde sa pointe, d’autres gratte-ciel se poussent du col, la ronde Tour Coit perchée sur une colline est surplombée par les ouvrages plus récents.

Alcatraz 1JPG

Photos par Marie-Pierre Poulain

Alcatraz 2

Lieu idéal pour parler de liberté, avec sa colonie d’oiseaux, l’immense océan qui roule autour, et ce relatif éloignement du monde dans une petite île. Comment rompre l’isolement, comment faire circuler l’esprit dans ce lieu hautement touristique où les visiteurs venus du monde entier viennent imaginer ce que c’est que de vivre dans une cellule grillagée, sans espoir de sortie. Alcatraz a créé son mythe renversé, l’obsession de l’évasion, sujet de livres et de films. Une autre île, plus grande, plus loin de la côte, une île de relégués devenue l’île des forçats de l’apartheid, celle de Robben Island, suscite chez ses visiteurs la même angoisse, celle d’un enfermement sans issue que la plupart n’ont pas connu. C’est le début de la leçon.

Le regard erre en débarquant, et tombe sur un graffiti préservé: “Indians Welcome…” C’est que six ans après la fermeture de la prison en 1963, l’île d’Alcatraz a été revendiquée et occupée 19 mois par les amérindiens comme un territoire autonome. La suite du texte est recouverte d’une sévère pancarte noire et blanche: “United States Penitentiary, 13 acres, 1 1/2 miles to transport dock, only governments boats permitted, others must keep off  200 yards, no one allowed ashore without a pass”.

Alcatraz 3

Ai Weiwei, enfermé dans la prison géante de son pays, délivre dans l’île sans évadés un message de jeu et de liberté. Tout en haut, dans les salles de l’infirmerie, et ses cellules psychiatriques, la lumière joue sur les blanches fleurs de porcelaine qui débordent des toilettes, des baignoires et des lavabos. Fragiles et virginales offrandes là où devait suinter une eau plus sombre.

Alcatraz 4

A l’étage principal, les blocs de détention, longues galeries bordées de cages grillagées, avec lit étroit et point d’eau exposés, en rang d’oignon. La perte de l’intimité autant que de la liberté. On croit entendre les grilles tinter, et sur ce bruit fantôme les cellules du dernier couloir font entendre musique, poésie et discours de tibétains jugés séparatistes, des Pussy Riots, de Fela Kuti et de Martin Luther King. Ce sera le thème essentiel de cette visite carcérale: tous ceux qui ont risqué ou perdu leur liberté ou leur vie pour augmenter la liberté des autres.

Un bâtiment industriel, plus loin dans l’île, héberge un dragon suspendu aux couleurs de l’arc en ciel dont les flancs sont ornés de citations de Mandela à Snowden, et dont les méandres mènent à des tapis de legos représentant une infinité de prisonniers d’opinion. En contrebas d’une galerie, on voit à travers des vitres poussiéreuses des formes d’ailes métalliques, panneaux solaires rouillés, auxquelles pendent des ustensiles traditionnels tibétains. Tout ici proteste, et se joue de l’espace carcéral.

Alcatraz 5

Alcatraz 7

En fin de visite, l’ancienne administration-librairie de la prison accueille maintenant des stocks de cartes pré-adressées à des prisonniers dont certains ne les recevront jamais. Choisir une carte postale selon l’animal qui y est représenté, un cygne au hasard, découvrir quel prisonnier politique en est le destinataire, un prisonnier au Laos dont on n’avait jamais entendu parler. On rédige en fouillant son imagination quelques mots à cet inconnu, comme une bouteille dans l’océan des atteintes aux droits de l’homme. Ce petit devoir d’écolier fait toucher de la plume l’immensité de la tâche, après une visite pleine de couleurs et d’informations sur les prisonniers d’opinion et le devoir d’espérance qu’ils paient de leur liberté de mouvement.

Ai Weiwei a connu l’incarcération. Il sait que l’art et la mémoire survolent les murs des prisons, en préservant la respiration intérieure des dissidents ou des martyrs de toutes les époques et de tous les régimes. Wei-Wei nous fait communiquer avec ces consciences libres derrière leurs barreaux, pour ouvrir les frontières et les geôles.


The Art of International Justice: The CICC Arts Initiative to End Impunity

by Fiana Gantheret

A Spanish version of this post is available on the CICC Global Justice blog

How is it possible for art to capture and represent the nature of large-scale massacres ? the desolation of ravaged countries ? the end of a man’s impunity as well as the end of his freedom ? testimonies on unforgettable and intolerable events ? the attempts to establish the truth ? the ever unanswered questions of victims ?…

In other words, is it possible for art to encapsulate the various aspects of the vast issue that is the accountability of men for large-scale crimes? By making these aspects visible, can art participate in raising awareness about the role and processes of international justice ?

That is apparently the belief of William R. Pace, Convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), an international non-governmental organisation advocating to strengthen international cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC). Indeed, the CICC launched an Arts Initiative last April aimed at enriching the dialogue on global justice. The Coalition’s Arts Initiative to End Impunity was inaugurated with the screening of The Enclave, an audio, video and photo installation on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo by the artist Richard Mosse.

[vimeo 67115692 w=500 h=281]

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Constructions of Truth – Forensic Architecture as a Fact Finding Tool in the Context of Human Rights Violations

by Nicola Popovic and Fiana Gantheret

Through designing public and private space, architecture has always been at the crossroads of aesthetics and function. The design of houses, public areas and cities depends maybe more than any other art form on the purpose of its use. Architectural products are an integral part of the life and movement of people. Their given social functions influence their construction. Therefore, typology of architecture, as well as the function and purpose of buildings and public or private spaces, can be indicators of politically-driven actions and initiatives at a given time. Human life and movement have been influenced by the planification and the development of buildings and landscapes. Architecture has grown into a potential mechanism of control of individuals and groups in modern times. Building walls or bridges, the restriction and control of freedom of movement through the design of correction facilities or housing demolition in armed conflicts, are potential infringements on human rights.


Forensis | The width of the line crossing the “Red Castle” in Battir | Photo: DAAR / Amina Bech

The analysis of the traces of human rights violations in buildings or other physical structures is the subject of Forensic Architecture, a research project funded by the European Research Council and hosted by the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of LondonForensic Architecture assembles a team of architects, artists, activists and theorists and aims at gathering and presenting evidence in legal contexts and forums, and more specifically in the context of human rights and international criminal legal investigations.

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Children and war : a depiction of what moves us

by Fiana Gantheret

For once, it is not about our jobs, our cities, our hobbies, our habits. For once, it is not about something that only concerns some of us.

For once, but once more, it concerns all of us and moves us all.

One image, one picture, and this all too familiar feeling of being caught up with something we wanted to keep at large resurfaces. I wanted to forget what I felt when I saw the images of the palestinian children running on the beach. One minute, one second, and these lives are over. Their shadows stay now in my memory, as depicted by Amir Schiby.

Amir Schiby

Posted by Amir Schiby on Facebook on 17 July 2014

What could be worse than young lives being taken so abruptly? Maybe the idea that the elimination of a life can take more than one second, one minute. It sometimes unfolds over years, during which life is no more than hell. With some moments of relief, when playing football on a beach, for example.

This long lasting suffering can also be captured in one image. And again this all too familiar feeling of being caught up with something we wanted to keep at large resurfaces. I wanted to forget that I knew about hungry or working children, about children living in war. But here it is, in one image, this gripping feeling.


Pawel Kuczynski’s website


Acting Like Men – Freedom of Expression in a Heteronormative World

By Nicola Popovic

Gender roles manifesting the perceptions of what is supposed to be feminine and what is supposed to be masculine, is neither new on stage nor in reality. But for a play to be able to go beyond the parody of the masculine and feminine without ridiculing one or the other may be one of the challenges in contemporary theatre. Small Town Boy playfully overcomes any sort of gender categories and takes us through all layers of human emotions, intimacy and social dynamics, in two hours of high speed performance.

From an intellectual porn star to romantic gay lovers to a sensitive soldier on active duty… contemporary images of men are in the centre of Falk Richter’s latest project. The limits of male heterosexuality remain particularly disputed today, as spectre of real freedom and equality for all sexes has led to fear and resistance. If men also deny their previous role in the patriarchy and just do whatever they want, then who will continue to protect and preserve Western civilisation?” (Gorky Newsletter; 3. April-May 2014)

Small town boy

Small Town Boy” actors: Mehmet Ateşçi / Niels Bormann / Lea Draeger / Aleksandar Radenković / Thomas Wodianka; Director: Falk Richter, Stage and costume: Katrin Hoffmann, Music Matthias Grübel, Lights: Carsten Sander, Dramaturgy: Jens Hillje / Daniel Richter

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An account of three Movies that Matter: Freedom of Expression and the State

by Fiana Gantheret

Movies that matter festival

A small entry into often incredibly violent worlds. That is what the Movies that Matter Festival offers. A regular feature in The Hague for some years now, the festival took place this year between 20 and 26 March 2014. This post focuses more particularly on three movies that featured in the selection: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War by Jesse Acevedo, and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case by Andreas Johnson.

The focus of these three movies is freedom of expression and its violation by the state apparatus. The main characters fight to speak out, either about the state itself, or at least without any censorship. The latter is of course linked to the former, given that being able to speak without limits in the societies depicted in the movies entails saying Fuck Off to the system. The means to reach that goal: art. Punk music and performance in Pussy Riot; rap music in Rap is War; and conceptual art – photography, sculptures, installations – in The Fake Case.


Pussy Riot is about the trial of three members of the russian punk feminist movement Pussy Riot created in 2011: Nadejda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina, and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch. The three women were arrested after having staged a performance on 21 February 2012 on the soleas of the Cathedral Christ the Savior in Moscow to protest the support of the leader of the Orthodox Church to Vladimir Putin during the elections. They were sentenced on 17 July 2012 to two years imprisonment. On appeal, Ekaterina Samoutsevitch’s sentence was suspended.

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The Peace and Justice Project: How political cartoons contribute to the debate

By Fiana Gantheret

On the occasion of the bicentennial of the Dutch Constitution, the Cartoon Movement, together with Word Press Photo, the City of The Hague and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched on 29 March 2014 the Peace and Justice cartoon project at the Peace Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands.

With reference to Article 90 of the Constitution, which provides that “The Government shall promote the development of the international rule of law”, the project aims at triggering a debate on peace and justice through a series of guest lectures in several countries and the sharing of ideas that will follow these lectures. The students will be invited to share their thoughts by sending their tweets, sketches, comments and photos, that professional cartoonists will then transform into cartoons.

Here is a presentation of the project:

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Diego Rivera: the individual expression of collective emotions

By Nicola Popovic

Strolling along Berlin, it is impossible to overlook the numerous graffitis and, after all, mural art work visible at every street corner. Public art, which is what mural art has developed into, is part of our everyday media consumption, walking to the bus station or waiting at a traffic light. Political views and discussions are exchanged through symbols, words, and paintings, on walls and on buildings, in many cities around the globe.

In Berlin, the most prominent example of mural art is the accumulation over decades of layers of paintings and graffitis on the Berlin wall, the symbol of the division between two political ideologies, regimes and economic systems as it took place in one city. As shown by the Wall on Wall project, the Berlin wall, the Peace Line in Belfast, or the wall in Palestine are examples of dividing constructions which have been re-used as visual platforms for individual expressions of collective emotions concerning such disunion.

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