By Thalif Deen
Scene from the racial justice—Black Lives Matter -- protests in Washington, DC following the death of a Black man named George Floyd during a violent police encounter in Minnesota, USA. Credit: Amnesty International, Alli Jarrar
The French writer and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), once famously remarked: “I disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend unto death, your right to utter them.”
But that political axiom hardly applies to multiple governments in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America—including Greece, UK, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, Chile, France, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cyprus – where the right to protest, along with freedom of speech, are increasingly in jeopardy.
The government clamp down– on free speech and right to protest– has also taken place in Sudan, Belarus, Turkey and Colombia.
The London-based human rights organization, Amnesty International (AI), says protesters across the globe are facing a potent mix of pushbacks, with a growing number of laws and other measures to restrict the right to protest; the misuse of force, the expansion of unlawful mass and targeted surveillance; internet shutdowns and online censorship; and abuse and stigmatization.
AI says the right to protest is “under unprecedented and growing threat across all regions of the world”, as the organization launched a new global campaign to confront states’ widening and intensifying efforts to erode this fundamental human right.
According to AI, “from Russia to Sri Lanka, France to Senegal, and Iran to Nicaragua, state authorities are implementing an expanding array of measures to suppress organized dissent.”
Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said that in recent years “we have seen some of the biggest protest mobilizations for decades”.
She pointed out that Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and the climate change movements have inspired millions the world over to take to the streets and online to demand racial and climate justice, equity and livelihoods, and an end to gender violence and discrimination.
Elsewhere, she said, people have stood up in their thousands against police violence and killings, state repression and oppression.
Asked for a response, Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, told IPS major political transformations in history have been catalysed through protest.
“Sustained mass mobilisations have resulted in significant rights victories including expansion of women’s right to vote, decolonization in the Global South, passing of essential civil rights laws, dismantling of military dictatorships, victory over apartheid, legalisation of same-sex marriage, recognition of the climate emergency and much more,” he said.
“Exercise of the right to peaceful protest is powerful check on high level corruption, abuse by the powerful and authoritarianism. Yet, because of this it remains a much abused and much reviled by right by anti-democratic forces,” declared Tiwana.
Over the past year, according to the latest CIVICUS Monitor, civil society across the world has faced a variety of legal and extra-legal restrictions as captured in the Monitor.
The CIVICUS Monitor currently rates 39 countries and territories as Open, 41 rated as Narrowed, 42 rated as Obstructed, 50 rated as Repressed and 25 rated as Closed.
Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS the ability to express dissent and discontent through peaceful protest is a fundamental human right and a key component of democracy.
“Restricting and denying this democratic right is plain wrong. This new campaign is important and comes at the right time,” he said.
Spelling out the outcomes of the recently-concluded 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the US State Department said the United States co-sponsored a resolution on “the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests”.
This resolution urged member states “to facilitate peaceful protests by providing protesters with access to public space within sight and sound of their intended target audience and to promote a safe and enabling environment for individuals to exercise their rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly, expression, and association– both online and offline.”
AI says its “Protect the Protest” campaign is aimed at challenging attacks on peaceful protest, stand with those targeted and support the causes of social movements pushing for human rights change.
“Almost without exception, this wave of mass protest has been met with obstructive, repressive and often violent responses by state authorities. Instead of facilitating the right to protest, governments are going to ever greater lengths to quash it”.
“This is why, as the world’s biggest human rights organisation, we have chosen this moment to launch this campaign. It’s time to stand up and loudly remind those in power of our inalienable right to protest, to express grievances, and to demand change freely, collectively and publicly,” said AI in a statement released July 19.
A range of issues including the environmental crisis, growing inequality and threats to livelihoods, systemic racism and gender-based violence have made collective action ever more necessary. Governments have responded by introducing legislation imposing illegitimate restrictions on the right to protest.
For example, says AI, “we have seen blanket bans on protests, as seen in Greece and Cyprus during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, a new law contains provisions providing police officers with wide-ranging powers, including the ability to ban ‘noisy protests’, while in Senegal, political demonstrations in the centre of Dakar have been banned since 2011, precluding protests near government buildings”.
Governments of all kinds are also increasingly using emergency powers as a pretext to clamp down on dissent. This was seen at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in countries including Thailand, while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a government-imposed ‘state of siege’ has provided military and police officers with extensive powers to restrict protest in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu since May 2021.
“Governments across the world are justifying restrictions by arguing that protest constitutes a threat to public order and by stigmatizing protesters, branding them “troublemakers”, “rioters”, or even “terrorists”. By casting protesters in this light, authorities have justified zero-tolerance approaches: introducing and misusing vague and draconian security laws, deploying heavy handed policing, and taking pre-emptive deterrent measures.”
This approach was witnessed in Hong Kong, where the National Security Law and its expansive definition of “national security” have been used arbitrarily, among other things, to restrict protest.
And, in India, the anti-terror Unlawful Prevention (Activities) Act (UAPA) and the crime of “sedition”, have been used repeatedly against peaceful protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders.
While governments have long relied on aggressive tactics to police protests, security forces have increased the amount of force they use in recent years.
AI said so-called less lethal weapons, including batons, pepper spray, tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons, and rubber bullets are routinely misused by security forces.
And, since the early 2000s, AI has documented a trend towards the militarisation of state responses to protests, including the use of armed forces and military equipment.
In countries including Chile and France security forces in full riot gear are often backed by armoured vehicles, military-grade aircraft, surveillance drones, guns and assault weapons, stun grenades and sound cannons.
During the mass uprising that followed the 2021 coup in Myanmar, the military used unlawful lethal force against peaceful protesters. More than 2,000 people have been killed, according to monitors, and more than 13,000 arrested since the military seized power.
“People who face inequality and discrimination, whether based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, disability, occupation, social, economic or migratory status are also more affected by restrictions on their right to protest and face harsher repression”, according to AI.
For example, women, LGBTI and gender-non-conforming people are facing different types of gender-based violence, marginalization, social norms and legislation.
“Our campaign comes at a critical juncture. The precious right to protest is being eroded at a terrifying pace, and we must do all we can to push back,” said Callamard.
“Countless protesters have been killed in recent years, and it is partly on their behalf that we must now raise our own voices and defend our right to speak truth to power through protests in the streets and online.”
Footnote: The briefing, Protect the Protest!: Why we must save our right to protest, is available here.
IPS UN Bureau Report
This post appeared on IPS News.