States increasingly block protesters from justice, send ‘chilling’ message on rights – UN expert

OHCHR

States are increasingly applying measures to prevent access to justice for protesters amid a tightening of restrictions on civil society, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association told the Human Rights Council today.

“I have observed an increase in barriers being put up by governments to keep their populations from accessing justice, especially during protest movements,” Clément Voule said. “Hindered access to justice has an overall chilling effect on exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and contributes to the closing of civic space.”

In his report to the Council, Voule said access to justice, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the strengthening of civic space were inextricably linked.

“It is of utmost importance to guarantee this right in the context of peaceful protests where there are hundreds or thousands of injured as a result of the use of force,” he said. “Everyone detained during peaceful protests must have immediate and adequate access to legal representation without discrimination, and there needs to be appropriate safeguards to prevent interference and surveillance of this legal counsel.”

The Special Rapporteur noted a worrying trend during 2020, where 43.4 percent of the global population lived in countries rated as having a repressed civic space. In many contexts, restrictions imposed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic allegedly went beyond the legitimate protection of public health, often circumventing access to justice.

“When access to justice is not guaranteed or is obstructed, individuals will not only refrain from seeking remedy through formal or informal institutions of justice, but will often also refrain from exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the first place,” he said.

Voule emphasised the important and critical role of lawyers and legal practitioners in supporting victims to access justice in an addendum report. “Lawyers are a lifeline for arrested protesters to the outside world and therefore play a crucial role in ensuring that these protesters do not experience abuse during detention. Furthermore, the presence of lawyers as observers during protests can have a deterring effect and keep security forces from excessive use of force,” the expert said.

Voule also expressed concerns about increasing and prolonged internet shutdowns around the world in another addendum report. From 2016 to May 2021, a total of 187 internet shutdowns relating to peaceful protests and 55 shutdowns in the context of elections were been documented.

“Internet shutdowns are always a disproportionate response, no matter how big the political turmoil or the size of protests,” he said. “They violate the rights of protesters to receive and share information and have detrimental effects on a wide range of human rights.”

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