Freemuse calls for US authorities to return basic human rights to Guantánamo detainees

30 November 2017
A swift US government policy change states that it now owns the art created by Guantánamo detainees and has the legal right to do with it what they wish.
Image: Muhammed Ansi, Untitled (Hands Holding Flowers Through Bars), 2016, paper, pigment/Ode to the Sea exhibit, John Jay College


The US government – Department of Defence and Pentagon – has changed its policy for Guantánamo detainees saying that their art is now their property, and as such, have the legal right to do with it what they wish, including its destruction.

The policy came into being in response to an art exhibition at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which opened 2 October 2017, featuring over 30 works of art created by Guantánamo detainees, all of whom are or were held in detention without trial.

“The human right to freedom of artistic expression extends to all human beings, regardless if they are in prison or outside,” Freemuse Executive Director Dr Srirak Plipat said. “Artistic expression is an inherent part of our humanity; one that helps us understand and make sense of ourselves and our surroundings; denying anyone that opportunity, and the opportunity for others to experience such expression, is a violation of basic human rights.”

This change of policy goes against international law guidelines on the treatment of inmates, including two United Nations resolutions the US has supported:

  • The sixth principle of the UN Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners establishes that “all prisoners shall have the right to take part in cultural activities”.
  • The fifth principle of this document mandates the following: “Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, […] the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.”
  • Rule 105 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela rules, states that “recreational and cultural activities shall be provided in all prisons”.

In contrast, the US Federal Bureau of Prisons’ policy on Arts and Hobbycraft states that the use of hobbycraft facilities is a “privilege”, which may be granted or denied at the US authorities’ discretion. Public display of inmates’ artworks may also be restricted in accordance with “community standards of decency”.

In 2014, Freemuse, along with the National Coalition Against Censorship in the US, submitted a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report to the UN Human Rights Council on the protection of young persons’ and inmates’ artistic freedom in the US. One of the key recommendations in that report was to investigate violations of inmates’ artistic freedoms, including a call on the US administration to identify protection of federal prisoners’ human right to artistic freedom as a priority.

Freemuse calls on US authorities, particularly the Department of Defense and the US Federal Bureau of Prisons, to change its policies in line with international standards and UN Universal Periodical Review (UPR) recommendations to protect the right of prisoners and detainees to express themselves and engage in creative activities; and protect the right of the public to access and experience the creative expressions they create.

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