Scaffolding Human Rights

I walked through the Place des Nations in Geneva today where the iconic Broken Chair sculpture was completely covered in scaffolding. I couldn’t help but wonder: are we witnessing routine maintenance, or an unintended commentary on the state of global human rights?

Broken Chair covered by scaffolding

The Broken Chair has stood in the square since 1997. It was originally commissioned by Handicap International (now Humanity & Inclusion) to raise awareness about landmines and cluster munitions. At 12 meters tall, it’s a prominent feature of the landscape, and dwarfs passers-by.

Its location is significant. The sculpture faces the United Nations’ Palace of Nations and is surrounded by the headquarters of key UN agencies: the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This area serves as a global center for human rights advocacy and international diplomacy.

Over time, the Broken Chair’s symbolism has expanded. While it still represents the impact of explosive remnants of war, it has come to embody the broader struggle for human rights and dignity. Its three-legged design, with the shattered fourth leg, is a metaphor for the delicate balance required to maintain peace and protect human rights. Civil society groups advocating for the end to a war, freedom from torture, the right to bodily autonomy, or some other right often use the Chair as a backdrop to their rallies.

Seeing the Broken Chair encased in scaffolding today made me reflect on the current state of human rights. We are in a world where rights are being progressively eroded by political appeals to national sovereignty and cultural superiority, or by military forceā€”the global right of might. Challenges range from ongoing conflicts and displacement to the st

rategic disregard of international norms and values. The need for strong support systems for human rights has become increasingly evident.

As the Chair needs scaffolding, so too do human rights. While we wait for the Chair to emerge renewed, let’s not forget that human rights do not exist in a vacuum. They require nurturing and renewal, and when they are under threat, they need defending.