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Freedom of association and assembly

“Endemic impunity” is affecting the freedom to protest

18 July 2023

Gassed protesting woman, supported by the Medics after fainting after breathing tear gas. Toulouse (France) December 29, 2018. © Credit Patrick Batard / ABACAPRESS.COM

“Hundreds of activists and protesters have been arbitrarily detained, tortured, subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, forcibly disappeared, and killed,” said Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and association. “Victims have rarely received justice, while the perpetrators remain free from prosecution and are empowered to freely continue the repression of these rights.”

In his latest report to the Human Rights Council, Voule highlighted the increased repression and serious human rights violations against protesters and activists around the world, and called for urgent and robust accountability measures to break the cycle.

According to Voule, victims of human rights violations have been denied justice while perpetrators have benefitted from a lack of accountability for their crimes, which has contributed to a repetition and escalation of such violations.

“The endemic impunity for serious human rights violations has generated cycles of repression. Time and again, we see that where civic space is threatened, authoritarianism and conflicts ensue,” Voule said.

In his report, Voule revealed that hundreds of individuals have suffered life-changing injuries and disabilities as a result of the misuse or abuse of "less-lethal weapons" during protests, and victims were often left facing barriers to seeking redress. These include the widespread lack of political will among States to ensure accountability for abuses; a policy of denial and misuse of ambiguous and restrictive laws to justify excessive use of force, punish, criminalize, and detain victims; and the fact that some States have obstructed accountability and evaded responsibility by undermining the independence of national criminal justice systems.

Voule stressed that States should focus on investigating, prosecuting, and sentencing perpetrators rather than targeting activists and protesters. “Ensuring accountability for violations against people exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association is an integral part of the responsibility of States to respect, protect, and enable those rights,” he said.

The expert further urged States to adopt a holistic, victim-centred and gender-responsive approach to accountability, indicating that it is their responsibility to address the needs of victims, provide reparations, and ensure non-recurrence of human rights violations, cautioning that reparations should not be used to evade accountability but should complement legal prosecutions.

Voule also called for the central role of victims, survivors, their representatives and civil society to be recognized and guaranteed through the design and the implantation of national and international accountability processes.

While the expert recognizes the primary role of States in holding perpetrators accountable, he also called on the international community, in particular the Human Rights Council, to step in when states fail to ensure accountability for victims of serious violations of the rights to peaceful assembly and association.

“The international community should support accountability efforts, including mandating international commissions of inquiry to prepare and submit cases on alleged perpetrators to national and international justice mechanisms,” he said. “States should make full use of universal jurisdiction in such cases.”