Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Andersen’

Christof Heyns discusses new UN Comment on Right of Peaceful Assembly

July 30, 2020

On 29 July, 2020 Just Security published a lengthy interview of World Justice Project Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen with Christof Heyns, Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria and member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This is particularly important as a new new General Comment was issued just this week by the United Nations Human Rights Committee providing guidance on this topic at a critical moment, with protest movements on the rise across the globe, and many countries grappling with the appropriate response—something that has become even more complicated with the COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions on large gatherings.

The audio podcast is available at WJP. For those who pefere to read there is text version in the link below. Here a teaser:

Christof Heyns [00:13:17] I think the main idea is that peaceful assemblies are a legitimate use of the public and other spaces. If one thinks on a very sort of practical level, streets are used for vehicles, but they also are used for marathons and for markets and so forth. And they’re closed off on a Saturday or whatever the case may be for that purpose. And peaceful assemblies, like these other social gatherings, are a legitimate use of space. So a number of domestic courts–Spain and Israel and others–have said the public space “is not only for circulation but it’s also for participation”. And I like that quote; even in the translation it comes across. So that’s the underlying idea. It is, as you say, part of democracy.

It is also part of the message of the General Comment that peaceful assembly is an individual right. So one should not in the first place think about the entire assembly exercising the right — and is it violent or is it not, or does it cause damage, and as a result that everybody’s responsible — the focus is on the individual. And even if there are some individuals in a larger group who are, in an isolated way, engaged in violence, this cannot be attributed to the group as a whole. Every individual has that right. As far as possible, they should be treated as individuals.

I think also the underlying philosophy is to say that the right of peaceful assembly should be dealt with by the authorities in a “content neutral” way. As you will know, this idea is strongly present in the US jurisprudence, for example. So the idea is, even if those who are engaging in assemblies are your political opponents or you don’t like their particular message for whatever reason, they are still allowed to do so. There may be some exceptions and maybe we can talk about that. But in principle, the approach should be content neutral.

People should be allowed also to exercise the right “within sight and sound” of their target. So by doing that, they can demonstrate to others that they feel strongly enough about this to gather around this. But they can also, for themselves, see what is the support that they have. So if you organize an assembly, if you think you’re going to have a million people and it’s only yourself who shows up, that’s a message to yourself about the popularity and the support for your idea. In fact, Gandhi had this idea that what he did were “experiments with truth”. And I think to some extent that’s true for peaceful assemblies today. It’s a way of testing ideas and then seeing what is the response. Putting your toe in the water, putting up a trial balloon. And in many cases, this can diffuse a situation. So the society as a whole can take note and they can internalize the fact that there are people who feel very strongly about a certain cause and then they can do something about it. So it’s almost the idea of precaution. Even if I’m not persuaded, now, I know that these people feel like that, and I can do something about it instead of it blowing up into a massive problem.


Elizabeth Andersen [00:21:06] Well, it’s certainly an ambitious project you undertook and covers a lot of ground, with lots of standards and recommendations detailed. I think it’s interesting to think about how that all plays out in a concrete setting. And so you mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement and current protests, particularly here in the United States where I’m from. I’d be interested if you can share with our listeners how you see the Committee’s guidance helping us evaluate the response to that protest movement here in the United States. What’s appropriate? What’s not?

Christof Heyns [00:21:53] Well, I think a number of the themes of the General Comment are relevant in the United States and in other societies now as well. So the starting point is that this is an individual right. If there are members of a particular group of an assembly who are engaging in violence, this cannot be attributed to all members. In some cases, interventions are needed, not only permitted but actually required, if there is danger to the lives of people, for example, or to property. The state has a duty to protect, but that should be targeted as far as possible to the individuals concerned. These should be targeted interventions

I think the other overriding issue is the one of de-escalation. There are two approaches. One is to escalate the situation and to show superior force, so to speak. And, of course, if that’s done by the state, the other side also tries to show superior force, and it escalates. But the police themselves, and also the politicians, have a duty of de-escalation and to accommodate, to tolerate, some level of disruption, and to work towards preventing the situation from getting out of hand.

Perhaps more particularly, the General Comment also focuses on the use of military staff to do law enforcement – and I think much of that applies to paramilitaries as well. We don’t say this can never be done. But if it’s done, it is under exceptional circumstances, if there is no other way of doing it, and it should be on a temporary basis. And those who are involved must have the necessary training, including the human rights training, because, of course, the training of police and military staff differs very much. And then in the last place, they are bound by human rights standards. So the same standards that apply to the police also apply to military and paramilitary staff.

There’s also the issue of plainclothes police officers and the question of wearing identification. The General Comment emphasizes that law enforcement officials must wear clear identification. This is important for accountability purposes. If plainclothes police are used — and again, it’s not completely excluded, it may be the only way to have a positive intervention — before they use any force or arrest anybody, they have to identify themselves…..