Human rights are all about history, politics, and the law — right?

Not entirely. The arts have a role to play. Literature, music, dance, and other forms of creative expression often convey oblique stories of injustice and trauma. They also inspire humans to embrace the human rights implicit in every act of creation.

This expansive view of creativity was the message of “Witness,” an evening of nearly three hours of dance, music, and literature at the Memorial Church this week (March 3).

Sponsored by the Humanities Center at Harvard, the celebration was inspired by the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The groundbreaking United Nations document, signed in 1948, is being commemorated in a series of events during Harvard’s 2008-09 academic year.

The declaration’s Article 27 declares the explicit human right to enjoy the fruits of culture.

The arts and humanities, said event moderator Homi Bhabha, are instruments of aspiration and empathy as well as vivid documents of injustice and longing. They provide the world, he said, “an ethic of public virtue.” (Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center, is Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities.)

During “Witness,” a patient and rapt capacity crowd listened as 14 Harvard scholars read brief passages from world literature — a “tapestry of voices,” according to the program. One passage reached back centuries (a fragment from Shakespeare); most explored modern themes of imprisonment, torture, disappearance — and hope.

Before any reading, the audience gamely got to its feet to perform a modern dance, in place. A chorus of arms stretched out in synchrony and swept back down to a series of timed poses. The collective dance, to a passage from Tchaikovsky, was called “Exercising Article 27: A Balletic Invocation.” Leading the crowd was Damian Woetzel, a one-time principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who recently earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Among the readers at “Witness” was 1993 Nobel Prize laureate in literature Toni Morrison, who spoke last. In a soft voice, she delivered a dramatic passage from her 2008 novel “A Mercy” while sitting in a wheelchair in the church’s center aisle. “It’s called sciatica or something,” said Morrison, explaining her perch. “But what it really is is decay.”

“A Mercy” evokes American slavery’s earliest days. But it portrays a culture of 17th century servitude so pervasive that it crosses racial boundaries.

Before reading, Morrison observed that “the destiny of the 21st century will be shaped in large part by the possibility of a sharing world.” And that world, she said, will be prompted by “the movement of peoples under duress, beyond and across borders, [in] forced or eager exodus.”

Law, commerce, and war will have their places in this modern story, but the arts — “the cultural production emanating from estrangement,” Morrison said — will have an impact “on ethics and human rights.”

Interspersed with the readings were musical interludes, which, like the readings, ranged over time and the world.

Among the gathered musicians was celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76, who played alongside members of his Silk Road Ensemble. He had a part in the dirge-like excerpt from Shostakovich early in the program; a later fragment of Messiaen, haunting and slow; and the madcap and athletic fourth movement from Shostakovich’s Trio in E minor, Op 67, which finished the evening with a flurry of string-picking.

The evening’s longest musical interlude — an ensemble piece performed by Ma and nine other musicians — was the modern and magical “Night Music: Voice in the leaves” by Uzbekistani composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, who was in attendance.

Harvard President Drew Faust was to have been the first of the readers. But in her absence, American Repertory Theatre actress Karen MacDonald read passages from “Killing,” the second chapter of Faust’s celebrated 2008 history of Civil War death, “This Republic of Suffering.”

Killing in battle was at first a shock, then led to the inhumanity of numbness. “Loss of feeling was at base a loss of self,” Faust wrote, “a kind of living death that could make even survivors casualties of war.”

The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Harvard’s Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, read from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” The long poem is a meditation on time and the human condition. The past, Eliot seems to say, weaves together humanity in a democracy of sorrow.

We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

Visiting scholar Shahriar Mandanipour, who learned to write short stories while under fire in the Iran-Iraq war, read from his essay “Why I Became an Iranian Writer.”

Totalitarian regimes use language more than violence to hold onto power, he said — by creating fictions that counter reality.

“In such times when the whole language is used to make thousands of lies,” Mandanipour read, “one must write to prove that the word ‘tree’ means ‘tree,’ that the word ‘cherry’ means ‘cherry,’ and ‘kiss’ means ‘kiss,’ and ‘freedom’ means being free to not lie.”

Office for the Arts announces its spring 2009 grants