Schools urged to fly new human rights flag by Ai Weiwei

Artist and dissident tells Tes that teachers must educate pupils that 'rights are not given for free'

Flying the flag Ai Weiwei

Schools have been urged to celebrate human rights by flying a flag designed by Ai Weiwei.

In an exclusive interview with Tes, the artist and political dissident said the global rise of populism meant it was more important than ever for teachers to educate their pupils that “rights are not given for free”.


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Mr Ai was commissioned by a number of arts organisations and human rights charities to create a flag to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The flag – which features a large human footprint – is due to be flown across the country between 24 and 30 June, with schools urged to get involved. A programme of activities around human rights will be held in the same week.

Mr Ai is a conceptual artist whose works include Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, and Sunflower Seeds, which was exhibited at the Tate Modern in 2011.

A vocal critic of the Chinese government, he was detained by the country in a secret location for 81 days in 2011 and also spent time under house arrest. He has lived in exile in Berlin since 2015.

Speaking to Tes ahead of the Fly the Flag week, Mr Ai said: “To design a flag is not a simple matter, it relates to the most important topic of our time, which is defending rights and human dignity.”

He said he alighted on a footprint as a symbol that could be recognised by people from “different cultures and different backgrounds” after paying visits to refugee camps around the world.

“In the camps, many people are barefooted…it could be Africa, the Middle East, or the Mexico border,” he said. “We did some footprints in Bangladesh…I started thinking about using those footprints as a symbolic image for human rights.”

He said it was particularly crucial that schools teach about human rights given the current global political climate.

“In many nations and cultures the populist or the nationalist moment is quite strong,” he said.

“Very often, it hurts the human rights condition, so that’s why we think we have to have better education in school to make children understand today’s prosperity and rights are not given for free. It takes individuals to defend their own rights otherwise it will be taken away by different interest groups.”

“It’s more urgent and more crucial for young people to understand human rights is something that is never guaranteed.”

The groups behind the flag include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Liberty, as well as the arts organisations Fuel, Donmar Warehouse, the National Theatre, Sadler’s Wells and Tate.

They are encouraging teachers to create versions of the flag with their pupils by downloading a resource pack, which contains instructions on how to make them.

Lesson plans and assembly packs about human rights have also been designed with teachers, and are available to download for free for use in citizenship and PSHE curriculums.  

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