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2011 - A defining geopolitical moment

Addressing the Council, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives spoke of his own experiences and the recent history of his country describing a parallel between this year’s protest movements in the Middle East, North Africa, and other countries and a similar movement for change in the Maldives which saw the old regime there peacefully removed from power in 2008.

“I have been invited here today as a President,” he said, “but I stand before you as a protester. I stand before you as someone who has spent much of his adult life speaking out against leaders who place their own interests over those of their people, leaders who seek power for power’s sake.”

At the request of the Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights organized the panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.

The decision to hold the panel was made following this year’s peaceful protests in the Middle East and North Africa which in many instances have led to human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention, torture of detainees and others and enforced disappearances.

Describing the events of this year as “a defining geopolitical moment” President Nasheed said in his keynote address, “It is a time of awakening… when Muslims across the world are standing up as one to demand equality, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These developments provide a fitting rebuttal to those, inside and outside of Islam, who claim that our religion is not compatible with democracy.”

Opening the panel discussion, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang drew attention to the many occasions on which the Council had addressed the promotion and protection of human rights in peaceful protests through its enquiries into situations in specific countries, including Belarus, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria.

“The panel takes place against the backdrop of an historical turn of events during the last 10 months which saw brave women and men, young and old, peacefully taking to the streets in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa and in other regions, prompted by a profound desire for increased respect for their fundamental human rights,” Kang said.
However, as the Deputy and many other speakers pointed out, the protests have more often than not been brutally repressed.

Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association said the establishment of his mandate earlier this year was particularly timely given recent events. The right to express grievances or aspirations for change through peaceful protest lies at the heart of any democratic society, he said.

Bahey El-Din Hassan, General Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies told delegates his presentation was made in consultation with and in the name of a number of independent civil society organizations and human rights defenders from throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and was dedicated to the millions of citizens within the Arab region and beyond, who had sacrificed and continued to sacrifice their lives and their safety in peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience in order to demand a dignified life.

Hassan said the democracy movements in the Arab world had begun decades ago and “those who had organized or participated in peaceful protests… had been subjected to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detentions, and torture.” Hassan said the Human Rights Council should draw up a framework, expressed as a Declaration on guidelines and principles for the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests, as a guide for Governments in responding to these situations.

Other speakers at the panel included representatives from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Malaysian National Human Rights Commission.

President Nasheed concluded his address with a warning to those regimes facing movements for change. “Peaceful protest,” he said, “should not be viewed as a threat but as an opportunity – an opportunity to connect with the people, to understand their concerns and to work together to improve society.”

“If governments do not adopt this enlightened approach, if they choose aggression over discussion and entrenchment over reform, then in today’s globalised world, it is increasingly clear that they will fail and, most likely fall,” the President said.

14 September 2011