Issues

Human Rights Flags and Their Meanings

A flag is a symbol. National flags often have military and patriotic associations as well as cultural ones. Flags are also used for decoration and advertising. At its essence, a flag is about identity. It unites a group under a shared image. Human rights are also something shared. Every human being has dignity and deserves certain rights. There are a handful of flags that represent organizations committed to human rights or groups fighting for their rights. Here are five:

The UN flag

The logo on the UN flag was designed by a team in 1945 during the United Nations Conference on International Organization. Oliver Lincoln Lundquist led the team. The emblem represents a map of the world, centered on the North Pole, with a wreath made from olive tree branches. The colors and images all mean something. The blue background symbolizes a peaceful, still environment. The olive branch also represents peace. It’s had this association since at least 5th-century Greece. The Greeks saw the olive branch as a symbol of plenty and a talisman against evil spirits. The Greek goddess of peace – Eirene – often carries an olive branch. The UN has always considered world peace as its primary goal, so the flag’s design makes sense. Three years after the logo’s design, the UN released the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The only way to achieve peace is to ensure human rights for all.

The Human Rights Campaign flag

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the United State. Marketing and design firm Stone Yamashita created the logo in 1995. They came up with ten potential designs. The simplicity of a yellow equal sign atop a blue square became HRC’s favorite. In 2013, a variation of the logo was released in support of two Supreme Court cases on marriage equality. The blue background was swapped with red, while the yellow equal sign became pink. These colors were chosen because of their association with love. This version of the logo went viral. According to Facebook, 3 million people shared it. HRC’s logo is very popular as a bumper sticker as well as a flag and profile picture. It’s often seen at pride celebrations and other events.

The rainbow flag

In 1978, Harvey Milk commissioned artist and Vietnam War vet Gilbert Baker to create a flag for San Francisco’s pride parade. Baker had already thought about a flag that represented the LGBTQ community. The idea had come to him watching America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Now with a commission, Baker got to work. A pink triangle, which the Nazis had used to identify gay people, was a common image at the time. Baker didn’t want to associate his design with something so traumatic. Instead, he used a rainbow to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ community. Baker’s design used eight colors each with their own meaning: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. The rainbow flag has become a global symbol for LGBTQ rights and a celebration of the community.

The trans pride flag

While the trans flag could be considered a variation of the rainbow flag (the “T” stands for “trans”), it represents an identity separate from sexual orientation. Monica Helmes, a trans woman, created the design in 1999. It was first displayed in 2000 at the Phoenix, Arizona pride celebration. There are three colors: blue, pink, and white, which is in the middle of the flag. The blue represents male, pink represents female, and white represents transitioning, intersex, and non-binary. The pattern is designed so there’s no right or wrong way to fly it. The trans pride flag is becoming increasingly well-known. In 2014, Helmes donated the original flag to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In 2020, an emoji of the flag was added to the standard Emoji listing.

The Pan-African flag

Also known as the Garvey or Black Liberation flag, the Pan-African flag represents Black freedom. For years, Marcus Garvey, an activist and leader of the Pan-African movement (which strives to unite indigenous African groups and the African diaspora) talked about a flag to represent Black liberation. He saw it as an important symbol of political legitimacy. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (which Garvey founded) adopted the flag in 1920. The flag has three colors: red, black, and green. Red represents both the blood spilled by Africans dying for liberation and shared blood. Black represents Black people. Green is a symbol of growth and fertility. Historian Robert Hill says this flag became the template for African countries as they became independent. We can see the red, black, and green colors in national flags from Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and others. Today, the Pan-African flag can be seen at some Black-owned businesses and Black Lives Matter protests.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.