The 48th Session of the Human Rights Council

(13 September- 8 October)

ITEM 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to development


Panel Discussion on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Peaceful Protests

29 September

By: Payton Focht/GICJ

Executive Summary:

Peaceful protests are essential for democracy and a crucial aspect of human rights. Unfortunately, there has been a rise in threats against protesters, putting at risk the fundamental right to peaceful assembly. The Covid-19 pandemic has allowed governments to restrict the right to assembly to an unacceptable degree, leaving people unable to enjoy freedom of expression. In addition, there has been a growing issue globally of police brutality against peaceful protesters. These incidents are human rights abuses and must be addressed.

The panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests at the 48th session of the Human Rights Counsel panelists consisted of; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule- Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Yuval Shany- Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Chair of the Human Rights Committee, Lysa John- Secretary General of CIVICUS, and Commissioner Luís Carrilho- United Nations Police Adviser. The main theme of discussion was assembly in a technological and Covid-19 world.

The right of assembly is a crucial human right that should not be limited to the extent that is has been by many countries. People disserve the right to be heard and any state that attempt to limit that right should be held accountable to the greatest extent.


 Panel Discussion

 Opening Statements

The Panel Discussion on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Peaceful Protests took place at the 26th meeting of the 48th Session of the Human Rights Council on 29 September 2021.

The rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly, of expression and of association are under attack by oppressive governments. There has been a stark rise in public repression in recent years via police brutality and unnecessary restrictions under the cover of covid-19. The state of protesters rights has become dire across the world. In its resolution 44/20, the Council recognized the importance of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of expression and of association. The Council expressed concern about government misuse of technology, police brutality, health restrictions, and the increasing number of protesters being punished.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, opened the panel discussion with a reminder that the right to assemble is a global and universal right that is at the core of democracy and the achievement of human rights. She stated that one of the crucial features of assembly is the feedback it provides to the States. It is a window into the key insights to the needs of the people. She discussed the need for prompt and effective policy making and the prevention of government misuse of technology to limit the rights of protesters. She ended her statement by reminding the council of the need to protect peaceful protesters. 

The second speaker was Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. He mentioned that Article 21 protects  online protests as well as in person assembly. This is a growing concern as the population has developed greater reliance on online presence. He noted that the increasing trend to use force and the idea that protests are a security risk is concerning. This is not how states should be viewing peaceful assembly. He also noted that there has been a disturbing growth of states misusing technology to try and silence protesters. He mentioned that states use mass surveillance, create hate, release false information, silence monitor and harass protesters, and create internet blackouts to prevent protests. Access to justice is essential to ensure accountability. He mentioned that states cannot use the pandemic to use force and not allow protests, as this is a right of the people. In light of this, the interpretation of what is grounds for restricting protests has dramatically increased and should be limited once again. He stated that states are an authoritarian regime if they restrict protests beyond reason.

Yuval Shany is the Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former Chair of the Human Rights Committee and was the third speaker. He covered the scope of the right to assembly stating that it does not cover violent assembly and does not include isolated incidents. States need to facilitate an enabling environment for peaceful protests; they need to protect protesters; allow for spontaneous assembly; and ensure that protest organizers are only responsible for their actions, not the actions of others. Restrictions cannot be used to stifle the right, it needs to be balanced, and the training of officers on how to handle protesters is imperative. Regarding technology, online assembly, communications, ect. need to be protected and interferences are unlawful unless justified.

Lysa John, is the Secretary General of CIVICUS. She emphasized that people’s rights were being taken away with arbitrary restrictions and violent policing. She noted that there was evidence of excessive use of force towards protesters in at least 79 countries and over 100 states have detained protesters under covid-19 restrictions. She noted that states have active and inactive responsibilities that they must be held to.  She mentioned 4 key challenges. The first was the lack of sunset clauses in emergency laws used to stifle protests. Second, the use of targeted internet shutdowns imposed on protestors and minority groups. Third, artificial intelligence used to identify and harass protesters with facial recognition. Finally, financial restrictions used against movement leaders. Actions that must be taken are to ensure that all State regulations to limit assembly are reasonable, drop charges, release and review individuals imprisoned, and the international community must have consistent rules when it comes to the rights of protesters. We need all to be more responsible

The last panelist was Commissioner Luís Carrilho, United Nations Police Adviser. He stated that the goal of the UN Police was to serve and protect the population. He stressed consistent and harmonizing approaches to policing protesters as public safety is a main priority. Police and military should have the tools to create a dialogue that can allow for mediation and proactive de-escalation strategies. Training police officers appropriately is a major priority in protecting the rights of protesters.

The panelists were all in agreement that the main threats to the right of assembly in today’s world are new technologies, lack of capacity building, Covid-19, and the lack of accountability.  Technologies involve governments stifling assembly and protest planning online with blackouts.

In addition, there is evidence of governments using technology to monitor and harass protesters, activists, and journalists.

The second issue that the panelist agreed on was the need for capacity building to reverse the trend of government violence towards protests. In this, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule stressed the importance of experience sharing and how the international community needs to come together to share what works and what does not when combatting this issue.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wrongfully given governments an excuse to limit peaceful protests in the name of public health. While the limitation was seen as acceptable, the lack of sunset clauses has become an issue. Yuval Shany echoed that assembly is essential, not a luxury and it is imperative that governments see it as such.

The lack of accountability is an issue in many countries across the world. There is an increasing use of force by the government that is extremely concerning. To address and fix this concerning issue, there must be accountability on the national and international levels.

Commissioner Luís Carrilho addressed the goal of the UN Police is to serve and protect with consistent and harmonizing approaches across the world. He discussed the importance of appropriately trained police officers that are able, if necessary, to create a dialogue, offer mediation, or perform proactive de-escalation strategies if needed during a protest.


 Participating Delegations’ Statement

The United States of America pointed out the growing number of government crackdowns surrounding peaceful assembly and called on all governments to respect this human right. The delegation mentioned Cuban protests that took place on 11 July, the protesters were faced with violence and repression. Protesters were detained and many face non judicial proceedings. In Nicaragua, according to the US, there are alarming concerns over the government’s crackdowns against political oppositions. This is particularly alarming because of upcoming November elections. Finally, the delegation mentioned Afghanistan and the Taliban’s denial of protests, the US reiterates that any government in Afghanistan needs to protect this right of assembly.

The delegation of Iraq wanted to reiterate its respect for the commitment of protecting peaceful assembly. The branches of their government would enforce this right to all people. Social media can also be a way for people to express disseminating and misleading information which jeopardizes peace and causes mayhem. Iraq asks the panel how to counter fake news.

The Colombia delegation states that blocking the right to health, food and life are not acceptable in any protest. The delegations asks how they can prevent social media from being a tool used to promote hatred, violence, and vandalism.

UNSECO focused on journalist and how they have been oppressed and denied this right for many years. They have been attacked, arrested, intimidated, placed under surveillance, and watched their material be damaged by the government.  In the last 5 years especially, there has been reports of women journalist being targeted and attacked and, in many cases, there was impunity and no justice. The delegation highlighted the need for law enforcement to be better trained on several issues surrounding peaceful protests.

In the ensuing debate, civil society organizations brought up important issues involving children and the right to protest. They emphasized that children are allowed to exercise the right of assembly and governments need to create an empowering and safe environment for children to do so. They noted that sometimes children are targeted for harm by governments during protests. This issue needs to be brought to the attention of the international community as well as individual governments to ensure that children can partake in this right as well.

Concluding Remarks

 The panelists closed with final remarks. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule states that States action need to start matching with what is being said and need to have a commitment to technology. He also stresses the importance of experience sharing to reverse the trend of police brutality. And that accountability with prosecutions nationally and internationally are imperative. Yuval Shany noted that there are some good practices that still allowed for assembly, such as masks and distancing. Assembly is essential, not a luxury and states should see it as such.


Position of Geneva International Center for Justice

GICJ would like to reiterate that peaceful protests are a pillar of democracy and the right to assemble should be protected. We agree that the limits that have been imposed on the right of assembly because of Covid-19 has gone too far all over the world. GICJ feels that what is happening is a gross misuse of power and technology by the government and the international community needs to take active steps to ensure that this pattern does not continue to worsen.

In Iraq specifically, it is well known that the Iraqi government has been targeting protesters that oppose them politically, individuals are being abducted and detained without due process. The people of Iraq have been protesting and calling to end impunity since 2019. The international community must do everything in its capacity to hold the persons of grave human rights violations in Iraq accountable.  The UN must hold Iraqi authorities accountable for the crimes against protesters and must put an end to the violence and the disruption they are causing. 

States across the world that have neglected their duty to their people and have put unnecessary restrictions on protesters or have used force against their people should be fully held accountable. There should be independent investigations into instances of brutality, misuse of health restrictions, and misuse of technology. People in all countries disserve this basic democratic right to improve their countries, states that disallow this human right should not be allowed to continue with this mistreatment.

Justice, Human rights, Geneva, geneva4justice, GICJ, Geneva International For Justice


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