Humanitarian Principles. Here & Now: Passerbys Share Their Thoughts. Part II

How can art help us understand Humanitarian Principles?

According to the International Humanitarian Law, four main principles underpin the definition of the humanitarian response: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles are the foundation for integrated and widely accepted codes of conduct, commitments and core standards (OCHA 2012).

Humanitarian Principles. Here & Now is a contemporary art installation produced by the Musée de l’Elysée and the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in conversation with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Swiss Embassies around the globe have the chance to present Humanitarian Principles. Here & Now within their local context through art installations, which not only showcase the work of Swiss artists but also promote important in-depth reflections about humanitarian operations.

If you pass by the Moynihan Plaza at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C., you will see fascinating photography and video installations illustrating fresh, local and contemporary perspectives. To engage with our audience even more closely, we have asked passerbys to share their thoughts about the exhibition but also more generally about art and how they relate to Humanitarian Principles in everyday life.

Ludwig Boehnke, LLM student at Washington College of Law, posing with his favorite piece

I would choose this picture because it is a very dynamic picture. It’s almost as if you were in that moment. Even though we can only guess what is about to happen, it leaves space for imagination. On the one hand, I would link this picture to the legal principles of proportionality, self-determination, freedom of speech. Basically to Human Rights and freedom in general. On the other hand, the lack of humanity here strikes me. This picture makes me think of all police actions that very often lacked of humanity and did not follow the principle of proportionality.

First and foremost, I would say that the principle of humanity has been a guiding principle for my everyday life. I always aim to respect every human being’s dignity and honor by accepting them as they are.

A principle that I do not seem to believe in or at least don’t seem to follow, is the principle of neutrality. In my opinion, one can never fully be neutral when facing difficult questions or challenges. Due to our environment, our different backgrounds and experiences, we are all somehow shaped or biased in our opinions and actions.

Last but not least, I think that the different types of freedom, such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement and so on play an important role in my life.

In my opinion, art is one of the best instruments to raise awareness on certain topics or to at least trigger a thought process regarding a specific question. Art is even more effective when it is shown in a public space that is accessible for all and free of charge.

If we take the current exhibition on humanitarian principles as an example, I think that the dialogue on humanitarian principles is a topic that is normally discussed within a small group of experts and not so much within the broader public. Art and this exhibition, in particular, helps connecting questions around the topic of humanitarian principles to people’s everyday life.

Olivier Bottequin, LLM student at Washington College of Law, in front of his favorite picture

When I see this image, I think of humanity. Humanity includes the basics of being human. But in this picture, those essential aspects are not in place. The person carrying the suitcase with the child tries to render the situation as human as possible for the child.

This image also makes me think about my own privileges and appreciate them even more.

Actually, I don’t think that any of these four principles consciously accompany me in my everyday life, nor do I consciously follow any of them as a guiding principle.

If I were to associate one of these principles with my everyday life, it would be neutrality. I guess that I try to be neutral as a person because I am often avoiding conflicts. However, for my future, I would like to change this. I think that in certain situations it is important to take a stand, a position, state an opinion and to, therefore, not remain neutral.

For me, art is abstract. Much like the discourse on humanitarian principles. For this reason, I think that art can create an understanding or help creating an understanding of the humanitarian principles, but only for a certain target group: those who have an interest in art. If one does not have any interest in art, I believe that only few of them will try to make a connection between the art installation and humanitarian principles. However, specific questions, such as the ones we see here among the objects shown, can certainly help to start building bridges between humanitarian principles and everyday life.

Cristina Sacco, attorney, and her favorite piece.

Cristina Sacco, attorney, answers our questions…

The Koi fish picture immediately caught my attention. I think the Koi fish represents humanity. Being human also entails being selfish. The Koi fish are selfish. They need to follow their instincts in order to survive. Therefore, they spring at the food that they are given without considering the other fish around them.

This also seems to apply for us humans. Humans are selfish. We keep more for ourselves instead of sharing with the ones in need. The rich gets richer or even more comfortable and the poor often suffers most. Unlike the fish, we as human beings should at least be able to try to consider our instincts and behave in a more humanitarian way.

In my opinion, it is very difficult to connect those principles to my everyday life. Neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence are all very broad terms, which are not so obvious.

Despite that, if I had to choose one of the principles that I see at play in my personal life, I would say impartiality. Impartiality can help us see situations or challenges from a more objective perspective and achieve better solutions or decisions by trying to avoid considering solely our self-interests and by taking a step back.

Being impartial is a challenge that I try to apply in my everyday life.

My answer to that question is maybe. I think we all are different learners and so yes, visual art can be impactful to attach images to concepts. This impact offers deeper understanding to theories like the Humanitarian Principles. However, various art forms should be utilized to convey messages because of the various types of learners the world posseses.