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UN Expert Welcomes Landmark Protection For Online Assembly

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has hailed as groundbreaking an authoritative new interpretation that the right to peaceful assembly extends to digital activities.

“I am excited by this truly landmark affirmation that protection of the right to peaceful assembly extends to remote participation, including online assemblies,” said Clément N. Voule, reacting to a document released by the UN Human Rights Committee today. “It is particularly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many peaceful gatherings have moved online.”

The Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties, released its first-ever interpretation of Article 21 of the Covenant, which in 66 words asserts the right to peaceful assembly. The Committee document, General Comment 37, is the culmination of two years of broad global consultations with civil society and experts, including with Voule and his predecessors, who had extensively pushed for such a document to be adopted.

“By focusing extensively on the intersection of digital technologies and the right to peaceful assembly, General Comment 37 sets out a clear framework to protect this fundamental right in the digital era,” said Voule. “It firmly settles the debate about whether the right to peaceful assembly extends to online activities, says governments should not block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies, and questions the chilling effect of surveillance technologies.”

The Committee’s interpretation will be important guidance for judges in national and regional courts around the world, as it now forms part of what is known as ‘soft law’, he said.

“I urge States to protect peaceful assemblies online as well as offline,” said Voule. "During the current Covid-19 pandemic, when many peaceful gatherings have moved online, governments should strive to create an enabling environment for people to gather online and continue to access and use digital technologies to organise, participate in and monitor in-person assemblies.”

Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule (Togo) is the Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association.

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