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How do you define lawful peaceful protest? The UN Human Rights Committee has a clear answer

People have the right to demonstrate peacefully and Governments should respect international law and let them do so, senior UN-appointed independent rights experts said on Wednesday.

The legal advice is from the UN Human Rights Committee, whose 18 experts monitor how countries implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The panel’s General Comment, notes that protesters have the right to wear masks or hoods to cover their face and that Governments should not collect personal data to harass or intimidate participants.

Focus on racial justice

The development comes at a time of worldwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and clarifies how “peaceful assembly” should be understood by the 173 countries which have ratified the Covenant.

Committee member Christof Heyns, said that it was a “fundamental human right” for people to gather to celebrate or to air grievances, “in public and in private spaces, outdoors, indoors and online.”

“Everyone, including children, foreign nationals, women, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, can exercise the right of peaceful assembly”, he added.

‘Generalised references’ are not enough

The Committee’s advice also notes that Governments could not prohibit protests by making “generalised references to public order or public safety, or an unspecified risk of potential violence”.

In addition, Governments “cannot block internet networks or close down any website because of their roles in organising or soliciting a peaceful assembly”, according to the Committee.

It also stressed the right of journalists and human rights observers to monitor and document any assembly, including violent and unlawful ones.

Rights expert hails ‘landmark affirmation’

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, hailed the new interpretation that the right to peaceful assembly also extends to “digital activities”.

“I am excited by this truly landmark affirmation that protection of the right to peaceful assembly extends to remote participation, including online assemblies”, said ClĂ©ment Voule, reacting to a document released by the Committee. “It is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many peaceful gatherings have moved online.”

“By focusing extensively on the intersection of digital technologies and the right to peaceful assembly, General Comment 37 sets out a clear framework to protect this fundamental right in the digital era”, said MR. Voule. “It firmly settles the debate about whether the right to peaceful assembly extends to online activities, says governments should not block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies, and questions the chilling effect of surveillance technologies.”

The Committee’s interpretation will be important guidance for judges in national and regional courts around the world, as it now forms part of what is known as ‘soft law’, he added.

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