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Making it safer to express dissenting views through peaceful assembly and association

12 July 2012

People who choose to express their views through peaceful assemblies or associations can find themselves facing fines, torture, and imprisonment, according to Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are essential components of democracy,” Kiai said during the presentation of his annual report on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association during the Human Rights Council’s 20th session in Geneva. “They protect the rights of all individuals, including persons espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, human rights defenders, trade unionists or even migrants, to assemble peacefully and associate freely.”

According to Kiai, all individuals, without any kind of discrimination, are entitled to these rights even though these specific rights were neglected in international human rights law for quite some time. In some countries, the restrictions on peaceful assembly have created a shrinking space for people to express their dissenting views.  His report provides recommendations to establish minimum standards to protect and promote peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

“It is astonishing how often States have violated the right of individuals to assemble peacefully, including by violating their rights to life and to be free from torture, rights which allow no limitation. This is a critical component of the right to peaceful assembly,” Kiai said.

In his report, Kiai put forward several recommendations, including implementing laws supporting peaceful assembly and requiring States to protect individuals. He also suggested the elimination of prior authorization to hold protests and the improvement of reporting violations of peaceful assemblies. He also noted in his report that some States have made social media platforms more difficult to access, making it a challenge for individuals to organize peaceful assemblies.

He also provided examples of best practices regarding the right to freedom of association such as creating a simple and non-discriminatory system for people to register their associations on a voluntary basis, without being obliged to request prior authorization.

Providing access to domestic and foreign funding without prior authorization is also an integral part of the right to freedom of association.

"Without the ability to access funding from sources local, regional or international, this right becomes void,” he said.

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay also mentioned the exclusion of peaceful assembly and association from the conference’s final Rio document on sustainable development.

“Advancing the green economy and human rights must go hand in hand,” Pillay said. “I am disappointed at the lack of adequate resource provisions, and of adequate environmental controls, as well as in the deletion in the final hours of the negotiations of references to free assembly and association, and the failure to include provisions on free expression.”

“I understand that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association may be welcomed with reserve by those States that fear dissent,” Kiai said. “Dissenting views are what makes our world so rich and fulfilling.”

12 July 2012