Peaceful protests an opportunity, not a threat: UN Human Rights Council

Jade Chakowa, Wednesday 14 Sep 2011

The UN's primary human rights body has underscore that peaceful protect is an integral component in political reform, and that dissent can never justify human rights violations by states

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United Nations Human Rights Council (Geneva)

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held a panel discussion Tuesday to discuss the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protest in the Arab region.

The significance of peaceful protest as a human rights issue was a cornerstone of the discussion. According to the council, the right to peaceful protest is the heart of any democratic society.

Speakers indicated that the recent violent repression of peaceful protests were in violation of human rights principles and that those responsible should be held to account.

President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was invited as the keynote speaker, while he claimed to speak not only as a leader but also as a protester.

In his address to the panel, Nasheed claimed that "recent events across North Africa and the Middle East represented a defining geopolitical moment, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall," according to a UNHRC report.

Furthermore, "the determination of protesters in Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi and Homs had provided a lens through which it was possible to perceive that all people wanted the same thing: dignity and freedom."

Nasheed’s statement illustrates a shift in the council's focus. Protests are now being seen as part of the wider movement of reform and transitional politics, rather than isolated incidents.

In the holistic discussion of protests, an element of universality was evident. Nasheed acknowledged that each country’s political transitions are different, yet it is still possible to indentify common challenges: establishing and strengthening independent institutions, ensuring the guarantee of human rights, regardless of who is in power, and transitional justice.

In his address to the panel, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang said that "too many instances (of peaceful protest) were met with brutal repression, through summary extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment."

Her view is that authorities should not be view peaceful protests as threat, but rather an expression of legitimate demands. Essentially, she said, they should be met with dialogue, not violence.

The influence of the internet and social media was addressed by Maini Kiai, UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. He called on member states to facilitate internet access to all individuals with as little restriction as possible, as it is increasingly an important tool of mobilisation.

The question of how the international community should respond proved to be the battleground of the discussion. The different opinions on how to deal with human rights abuses in peaceful protests originate from differing views on why they occurred and who is responsible.

Kyung-wha Kang claimed it was the state’s responsibility to promote and protect human rights and prevent human rights violations. Her emphasis was distinctly on domestic reform rather than international action. In this context, Kiai announced the release a report in June 2012 suggesting best practices for member states, including the promotion of dialogue with demonstrators. 

Some see in this, however, a tacit admission that UNHRC does not have the power to enforce international human rights standards, but can only encourage nation states to take domestic action.

The use of force, however, is governed by international law. According to Kiai, it is ‘illegal to shoot protesters in the back, use snipers as a control method, or disperse people simply walking to work ... and beating protesters when already immobilised by tear gas or fear [is] prohibited."

Bahey El-Din Hassan, general director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said that there was "a necessity for the Human Rights Council to establish an overall framework for the United Nations system for dealing with the issue of human rights in peaceful demonstrations."

He cited the violation of human rights in protests in the Middle East since December 2010 as largely being the result of a "deeply entrenched culture of impunity for such crimes, imbedded in the legal structures and policies of Middle Eastern countries and fostered by an international community and powerful governments around the world."

This suggests the need for a programme of actively addressing the causes of human rights violations in order to protect the right to protest peacefully.

During the panel discussion speakers noted that peaceful demonstrations should result in governments addressing the social and economic inequalities that led to the uprising.

Other speakers highlighted the need the address impunity, the vulnerability of women and the young during peaceful demonstrations, and the training of law enforcement officials and security forces.

Over the last several months, the UNHRC has discussed the issue of the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests on repeated occasions. Tuesday’s meeting regarding a general approach rests on previous examinations of country-specific cases in Belarus, Côte d’Ivoire, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and the Syrian Arab Republic.

The council has previously adopted resolution 15/21 in September 2010, where it called upon states to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, including those with dissenting views in accordance with their obligations under international human rights law.

On 1 May 2011, the UNHRC also established the mandate of the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Peaceful protest and human rights are not a new combination. What Tuesday’s meeting shows is that the UNHRC is moving to recognise peaceful protest as an integral and legitimate part of any political reform drive, seeking an international framework to guide authorities in member states.

However, how precisely to address and prevent of human rights violations during peaceful protests remains to be elaborated.

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