Illustrating the Human Rights Revolution

December 10, 2014


Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, 2010 


In honour of Human Rights Day, we bring you some of the powerful illustrations included in Winnipeg’s newly opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights.


Montreal-based illustrator Sophie Casson was part of a diverse group of illustrators approached by exhibit design firm Ralph Applebaum Associates to visually bring to life the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions for the museum’s “Human Rights Revolution” gallery. Casson, who is represented by Three in a Box Illustration, provided 11 of the drawings — all of which illustrate a law or right in the exhibits flip books and computer screens. “I felt great freedom,” she says of the choice to incorporate several illustrators on the project. “[The variety] gave me a carte blanche feeling where I could give my own voice, my own thoughts on the subjects. It was a very personal approach.”


Casson credits her interest in human rights and social issues for why she was chosen for the exhibition. “My strongest work does come through subjects that affect humans, emotions, psychology,” she says. “That’s probably what came through for them.”


With only four weeks to complete the illustrations, Casson set out to ensure each of her images tied strongly to its associated convention. “[The work] is very powerful and, I feel, respectful of human rights,” she says. “This [Declaration] was [ratified] right after WWII… I didn’t want to make things any lighter. I think we needed to go right to the point and it needed to be a very strong point.”


Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, 1962


One of her most striking images depicts the convention associated with the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991. Casson drew a pair of handcuffed bloodied hands, with the nails painted with the faces of genocide victims. “I worked from the fact that these people had to be punished,” she says. “I don’t usually work in this kind of subject matter that’s really dark and bloody. Blood isn’t something I’m used to drawing. It was really an honour to be able to do something on that kind of subject matter, to be able to speak in any way and denounce [unacceptable practices].”


International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991


Illustrating some very simple phrases (most of the articles in the Declaration of Human Rights, originally signed by the United Nations in 1950, are only a line or two long) that had very complex histories was a challenge Casson accepted. Her experience with conceptual illustration came in to play more than once during the project.


“For the religious drawing [to accompany the freedom of religion law], I didn’t want to put in anything specific,” she says. “It had to be global and visual. The geometry — I don’t know how these ideas come about. When I start to draw, a strong image will appear in my head and I’ll work from there. I will dig until something comes out of it.”


Casson says she hopes the illustrations give viewers another entry point into the often-difficult material. “I hope the illustrations give a more poetic feel [to the Declaration], which is important in my work,” she says. “John Paul II called the Declaration ‘one of the highest expressions of human conscience of our time.’ It speaks right to our point in this exhibition.”


Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 18, Freedom of thought, conscience and religion


Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, 1978



Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 13, Right to free movement


Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984


Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, 2011


Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, 1969



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