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UN Human Rights Committee Publishes Interpretation On The Right Of Peaceful Assembly

The UN Human Rights Committee today published its interpretation on the right of peaceful assembly, defining the scope of assembly that applies to both physical meetings and virtual or online gatherings, and outlining governments’ obligations.

The UN Human Rights Committee, made up of 18 individual experts who monitor implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has issued a comprehensive legal guidance, also known as ‘general comment’, on article 21 of ICCPR about fundamental right of peaceful assembly. The general comment was the first major international instrument that was also drafted online, since the experts were unable to meet in person due to the pandemic.

At a time when recent developments, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have created unprecedented challenges to the realisation of article 21, and worldwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter have underlined its importance, the general comment clarifies how the term “peaceful assembly” shall be understood, and sets standards to assist the 173 countries which have ratified ICCPR to fulfil their obligations under the Covenant.

“It is a fundamental human right for individuals to join a peaceful assembly to express themselves, to celebrate, or to air grievances. Together with other rights related to political freedom, it constitutes the very foundation of a democratic society, in which changes can be pursued through discussion and persuasion, rather than use of force,” said Christof Heyns, the member of the Committee who acted as Rapporteur for the drafting of the general comment.

“Everyone, including children, foreign nationals, women, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, can exercise the right of peaceful assembly, which may take many forms: in public and in private spaces, outdoors, indoors and online,” he added.

The Committee also stated that governments have positive obligations under the Covenant to facilitate peaceful assemblies and to protect participants from potential abuse by other members of the public. Governments also have negative duties, such as not to prohibit, restrict, block or disrupt assemblies without compelling justification.

“Generalised references to public order or public safety, or an unspecified risk of potential violence are not solid grounds for governments to prohibit peaceful assemblies,” Heyns said. “Any restriction on participation in peaceful assemblies should be based on a differentiated or individualized assessment of the conduct of participants. Blanket restrictions on participation in peaceful assemblies are not appropriate,” he explained.

The general comment also provided guidance on a number of current issues, including the following: assembly participants have the right to wear masks or hoods to cover their face; governments should not collect personal data to harass or intimidate participants; and Governments also cannot block Internet networks or close down any website because of their roles in organising or soliciting a peaceful assembly.

It also stressed the right of journalists and human rights observers to monitor and document any assembly including violent and unlawful ones.

The full general comment is now available online.

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