Jo Glanville: Why the right to protest matters

Jo Glanville: Why the right to protest matters - Civic Space

An activist supporting the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion looks on as the police officers remove protesters blocking traffic near Vancouver International Airport, Canada 25 October 2021. REUTERS/Jennifer Gauthier

Around the world, governments are taking steps to limit and curtail people’s power to protest. In the second essay in ARTICLE 19’s series Boundaries of Expression, Jo Glanville looks at threats to this fundamental right at a time when we need it more than ever. 

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This is an age of protest: from direct action in Europe against climate change and demonstrations against COVID restrictions to protests against the re-election of President Lukashenka in Belarus and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. But it’s also an age of retreat from the duty to facilitate our right to protest. In authoritarian regimes, the crackdown on popular dissent has been brutal and sometimes lawless. In Hong Kong, a protester was jailed for more than five years  in November just for chanting slogans. Even in liberal democracies, where civil liberties have been won through protest movements, there is a backlash. In the United Kingdom, unprecedented new legislation will reduce our ability to mobilise and voice our views. 

The right to freedom of assembly and association is closely linked to the right to freedom of expression. Neither are absolute rights and can be limited in certain circumstances. Yet both are recognised as central to an open society, enabling each of us to participate in public life and express political opinions. That tension, between grassroots movements that are growing ever more creative in their tactics and states that are pushing back, has reached a peak over the past two years, exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Human rights groups are concerned that emergency legal measures to reduce the spread of COVID have become a pretext for cracking down on protest. In the UK, there was an outcry at the policing of a vigil last March for Sarah Everard, a young woman who was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer. Patricia Meléndez, head of civic space at ARTICLE 19, notes that in Poland the decision to reduce the numbers allowed to protest to no more than five people coincided with the controversial court ruling that introduced an almost total ban on abortion in October 2020. There have been mass demonstrations despite the restrictions. ‘They used the pandemic to introduce laws to restrict protest and also public health concerns as a reason to limit the number of people who can come together,’ she says. In a speech to the Polish senate in November 2020, the ombudsperson expressed concerns that police were increasingly using excessive coercion against demonstrators during the pandemic and urged the senate to work on a bill ‘to make the police more oriented towards observing human rights’.

A litmus test for the health of democratic values

During a time of global crisis, from the impact of the pandemic to climate change, the freedom to protest has become a litmus test for the health of democratic values. Just how far states will continue to restrict that right in the face of popular momentum for change on multiple issues will be key to our ability to campaign, hold authority to account and get our voices heard. ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly raised concerns that governments have treated protests and other forms of assemblies ‘as either an inconvenience or threat, resorting to excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, Internet shutdowns, mass surveillance, and other forms of unwarranted interference to repress assemblies’.

‘Protest is foundational to our democracy,’ says Jun Pang, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty, the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation. ‘It’s a crucial way that people have stood up to power, to challenge oppression, to challenge injustice and especially for groups for whom the corridors of power are not accessible. I’m talking about marginalised communities, groups that can’t reach parliamentarians, who are locked out through institutional mechanisms. Being able to take to the streets is a really powerful way of expressing their views and standing up to power, and in some cases might be the only way. I think we’ve seen in history that protest can allow and enable social change and is an incredibly powerful force for things we take for granted today.’ 

Protesters in authoritarian regimes, including Belarus and Hong Kong, have been part of remarkable and courageous grassroots movements calling for political reform. Both have faced ruthless crackdowns. In Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement in 2014, calling for the right to free leadership elections, marked the rise of a new generation of protest. ‘You saw a lot of the Hong Kong youth politicised. In the past, generally protests had been led by people of the ’89 generation,’ says Evan Fowler, co-author of Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back with the leading Hong Kong protester Nathan Law. Fowler, a writer, had to leave Hong Kong himself in 2018 after receiving threats. ‘I think 2014 was a big shift in that it represented a change from the old organisations to suddenly a newer, younger and in many ways more imaginative, creative form of protest.’ Since the introduction of the National Security Law in 2020, whose vaguely-defined terms have crushed the protest movement that took to the streets in 2019, the majority of the key pro-democracy leaders are now in exile or in prison. The diaspora is mobilising support for the pro-democracy struggle, although there are still signs of grassroots resistance in Hong Kong.

In Belarus, activists have also fled the country and protesters have faced harsh sentences since the protests against President Lukashenka’s contested re-election started in 2020. There have been reports of torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances. Opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September. ARTICLE 19, along with other human rights groups, has been campaigning for the release of human rights defender Andrei Aliaksandrau, who has been charged with treason to the state, as well as calling for an end to the wider crackdown on civil society in Belarus.

The power of disruption

It’s striking that the new generation of activists who face arrest, prosecution and possibly prison for civil disobedience simply feel they have no choice. In his new book, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law writes: ‘It was hard to process the idea that I was now a criminal. To have broken the law felt so alien to me. While I was prepared to face my sentence, as all activists who confront unjust laws must be, I was nevertheless irritated by the irony of such acts of civil disobedience – that in order to advocate for democracy and justice and safeguard the rule of law, sometimes laws had to be broken.’ 

Gully Bujak, action planner with Extinction Rebellion in the UK, believes that protest has to be disruptive in order to have an effect. ‘In April 2019 we had to be on the streets for nearly two weeks shutting down central London and the government did come to the negotiating table and a month later parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency. That wouldn’t have happened if we were on the grass or on the pavement waving flags. It happened because we made it impossible for them to ignore us, we were stopping traffic, slowing down the economy and making it so disruptive that they had to engage with us and unfortunately that’s just how it works.’

Despite the similarity of views between activists in democracies and authoritarian regimes, Evan Fowler warns against finding equivalence. ‘No system is perfect and every system has its problems. We should be very aware of challenges like the possibility of abuse with the legislation coming through in the UK, but thank our lucky stars that we can do this. We can hold them to account, we can express our concerns and it’s really fundamentally different.’ However, Hong Kong groups and individuals based in the UK have protested against the government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill as ‘an attack on Britain’s long history of civil disobedience’, drawing parallels with the crackdown on protest in Hong Kong.

Safeguarding protest and the demand for accountability

The departure of democracies like the UK from safeguarding protest not only erodes the rights of its citizens – protected by the Human Rights Act – it weakens the state’s role as an advocate for international human rights. The UK government’s policing bill has targeted direct action. Measures include increased sentences, expansion of stop and search powers and serious disruption prevention orders that could amount to bans on individuals’ ability to protest and participate in the political community.  The bill will allow police to impose conditions if the level of noise at a protest causes serious disruption or ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’. The home secretary will have the power to amend the definition of serious disruption, which she (or a future home secretary) could use to shut down protests she does not like.

Jun Pang describes the bill as part of a power grab: ‘We see the policing bill and the restrictions on the right of protest together with the judicial review and courts bill which locks certain people out of access to the courts, the elections bill that will lock people out of the ballot box, the nationality and borders bill’s overhaul of our asylum system and migrants’ rights, to even the government’s data protection overhaul, which threatens to remove people’s ability to access their data and privacy rights. All of these things we see as a multi-faceted attack on accountability and transparency.’ Liberty is concerned that the new laws will result in a chilling effect: people, especially minority groups, may not even want to exercise their right to protest because they fear they will be criminalised. 

In 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted a General Comment on the right to protest, which provided an authoritative interpretation of its protection in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It stated ‘failure to respect and ensure the right of peaceful assembly is typically a marker of repression’. It also noted that the consequences of disruption, whether economic or stopping traffic ‘do not call into question the protection such assemblies enjoy’. ARTICLE 19 believes that exercising the right to protest should be considered an essential characteristic of public order and not a de facto threat to it, even where the protest causes inconvenience or disruption.

Gully Bujak at Extinction Rebellion in the UK remains defiant. ‘I take no joy in thinking this, it’s grim determination, but part of me thinks we were always going to come to this place with this government because we are holding them to account. I think I’m almost hopeful in some sense, however perverse it may sound. It has to get really bad before it can get better and my hope is that when things get really bad it will mobilise more people to the cause and I think one has to come before the other, the dark is before the dawn.’

The government’s announcement this week that it plans to ‘revise’ the Human Rights Act marks the start of an attack on all our rights, not just protest. It has never been more important to safeguard the right that allows us to stand up for all of them.

ARTICLE 19 will be publishing a global brief on the right to protest later this year.

Jo Glanville is a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, London Review of Books and the Observer, among other publications. She is editor of Looking For An Enemy: eight essays on antisemitism (Short Books, UK; WW Norton, US, August 2022).


Read Why the right to truth matters, the first essay in ARTICLE 19’s series Boundaries of Expression