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Conscience ambassadors

Julian Tompkin
May 21, 2015

Human rights meet culture in this year's Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award. Folk singer Joan Baez and dissident Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei are being honored for their contribution to human rights.

A combination image showing portraits of Ai Weiwei und Joan Baez
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

She has been called the voice of a generation and him the conscience of a country. Now Joan Baez and Ai Weiwei are to receive human rights group Amnesty International's top honors in Berlin.

Amidst the fanfare and flashbulbs, there will be one notable absentee from tonight's Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience award ceremony. As if cruel testament to his newly-minted accolade, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is unable to travel to Berlin to collect the award.

The 57-year-old internationally acclaimed artist is an outspoken critic of his country's ruling Communist Party. In 2011, he was jailed for 81 days without charge and remains banned from leaving China.

Fittingly, the Tate Modern's director Chris Dercon - responsible for Ai Weiwei's "Sunflower Seed" exhibition, as well as leading the global campaign to have him freed from prison - will collect the prize on his behalf.

Speaking at a press conference at Potsdamer Platz before the award ceremony, Dercon, who will take over the reigns of Berlin's Volksbühne theater in 2017, said, "Ai Weiwei is going to use this award to address the fate of those who have given up so much more than he does - so he wants, with this award, to be a real ambassador [for freedom] and keep speaking out."

Dercon also used Weiwei's case to highlight the plight of Internet security, saying what was supposed to be the "ultimate platform for freedom of speech" has turned out to be "one of the most restricted and dangerous areas in the world."

'Thorn in the side of injustice'

US folk singer Joan Baez has also been jointly recognized as an Ambassador of Conscience by Amnesty - namely, for her civil rights and social justice activism, including avocation for the abolition of the death penalty, anti-war campaigning, and outspoken support for gay and lesbian rights.

Joan Baez (right) and Patti Smith, Copyright: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
Joan Baez (right) is pictured with Patti SmithImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Macdougall

Speaking in Berlin, fellow US singer and poet Patti Smith said she'd been a fan of Baez's music since her childhood, but has also come to highly respect the artist's dedication to human rights issues, calling her a "thorn in the side of injustice."

"Specific causes take a specific type of person to lose, lose, lose, lose and get a small victory, and that's why someone like me is grateful to […] a real activist such as Joan," said Smith.

"I don't think any serious social change takes place without a willingness to take a risk," Baez said, recalling her often-dangerous activist work in the US' still segregated south in the early 1960s. Best known musically for her version of seminal protest anthem, "We Shall Overcome," Baez - who has worked with Amnesty since its foundations in the early 1960s - added that non-violent protest had been the basis of her entire life.

Previous recipients of Amnesty's top accolade include Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

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