ohc-logo UN Human Rights Committee

Half-day general discussion in preparation for a General Comment on the right of peaceful assembly

Thank you Chairperson, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen

Allow me to join our chair in welcoming everyone who is here today, as well as those who are watching on the webcam.

It is a great privilege for me, and for my colleagues, to be part of these events, as we launch the process to draft General Comment 37, which will deal with the right of peaceful assembly in article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Committee is greatly honoured that so many of you, who are at the cutting edge of the development of this pivotal right, have come to Geneva to contribute to this process, and are present here today. We are delighted to have been able to use the convening power of the UN and the HRC in particular to have drawn you here, to embark with you on this journey for the next two years or so. On a more personal level, I have had the opportunity of working in a different UN capacity with many of you on this topic; pleasure to do so again and to meet so many new people.

The right of peaceful assembly is an important right for a number of reasons. Assemblies in their various forms, including public demonstrations, have played a central role in shaping the world in which we live, and continue to do so.

We merely need to look at the news to know that, in our current age, thousands of people are taking to the streets or are engaging in various forms of assembly every day, in all parts of the world, to pursue their goals.

But we also know that it has a much longer track record. During the last century, demonstrations have played a major part in some of the large-scale social changes of that era – the end of colonialism, addressing racial discrimination in the USA, the fall of the Berlin Wall, bringing apartheid to a fall, and the so-called Arab Spring, to name but a few.

The right of peaceful assembly is important in itself, because it gives the participants an opportunity to connect with each other, and to collectively assert themselves. But it also a major vehicle through which the other rights in the human rights canon have come to have their meaning and their power: It is hard to think of any civil or political right; or social, economic or cultural right, which has not in one way or another been given life by demonstrations, marches, protest actions, or sit-ins. The quest for equality between men and women; preserving the environment; opposing war in many parts of the world – none of this would have been the same without people mobilizing in the streets and elsewhere.

Such collective action has become a central tool worldwide to renegotiate the prevailing power relationships in a largely peaceful way; to write and re-write the social contract. Assemblies are an integral element of social life on our planet today. In a very literal way, the right of assembly protects what is often called the ‘civic space’. It protects our ability not only to ‘talk the talk’ but also to ‘walk the walk’ – it protects our ability not only to contribute towards the famed ‘market place of ideas’ in an abstract way, but also to wave our banners in the real market place, on the central square in our home towns, and to say ‘this is what I stand for’.

We know that our strength as human beings lie in our ability to pursue ideals collectively. Providing a platform, or a space, for those who want to collectively pursue their ideal, is one way of providing room for a vital force of renewal and growth.

This is not to say all protests, all demonstrations, pursue worthy goals and should be encouraged – a sort of ‘bring it on, the more protests the merrier’ kind of approach. It should also be recognised that demonstrations may also be used for downright anti-human rights causes, such as anti-gay rights protests, or against foreigners. I remember writing my PhD on the non-violent part of the struggle in my home country South Africa, many years ago as apartheid was coming to an end. I was making the point about the positive role that civil disobedience had played, when farmers opposing the change came driving into town on their tractors to disrupt the traffic in Pretoria, and challenged the rather rosy picture that I had of demonstrations at the time. As rapporteur on executions I had to investigate demonstrations in a number of countries where many lives were lost.

Demonstrations are powerful and sometimes unpredictable tools, and well-intentioned peaceful demonstrations may become coercive, or indeed escalate into violence. Not all demonstrations or everything associated with demonstrations are to be welcomed.

These are realities. But – and this is the point – a world in which peaceful assembly is possible as a way to define the terms of our shared existence, even if it brings about some discomfort and disruption, and may carry some risks, is an infinitely better world than the alternative: Namely, a world in which one has to choose between mere acquiescence in the status quo, or a resort to violence. Allowing a platform and space for peaceful protest within a sensible framework is an integral part of the quest for a more peaceful world.

Because demonstrations are powerful and sometimes unpredictable tools, the challenge lies in finding ways to manage and indeed facilitate them, and to channel them as productively as possible. If protest action is a defining part of the modern era, one of the great challenges of our time must be to develop a sensible framework within which to approach demonstrations.

The opportunity to write a general comment on this topic in the Human Rights Committee offers a singular opportunity to meet this challenge. In my view, a special feature of the HRC – or rather of the treaty system as such - is the contribution that it makes to help clarify and develop the norms of the human rights project. Writing a general comment provides the 18 of us, who are privileged to serve for a few years on the Committee, with the opportunity to stand back, with our partners, and to reflect on the jurisprudence which the Committee has developed. This jurisprudence has been developed in a piecemeal fashion, often by our predecessors, over decades, in the views and the concluding observations of the Committee. We now have the opportunity to take a bird’s eye’s view, and to develop a coherent framework within which to view our earlier jurisprudence.

Writing the GC also provides us with the chance to ask how do new developments in the world impact on this right. Clearly, assemblies are different animals in a world of instant communications, where mass surveillance is possible, where many new forms of less lethal weapons are available, where drones are increasingly used in policing, and so the list continues. So, the challenge for us as a Committee, working with you as our partners, is to establish where there is an established consensus, and to write that up; and to gain a proper understanding of what the emerging flashpoints are, on which we can try to provide some guidance.

We hope that we will be able to develop a GC that will be used not only by the Committee, but also by other UN and regional human rights institutions, as well as civil society, legislatures, courts, police, academics and others involved in dealing with assemblies on the domestic level.

So the process forwards is as follows: As you know, we have posted a set of questions on the website to get the ball rolling. We received 43 written replies and submissions (here they are). This morning, we will start with a presentation by our colleague from special procedures, and my good friend, Clement Voule, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. We have thought we will then experiment a bit with technology, to bring some of the flavour and the feel of assemblies to this room. So we will show 4 pre-recorded videos. (Experiment. Let no one say the HRC is not at the cutting edge of technology - ) After that, we look forward to two rounds of presentations by a total of 18 participants from the floor, and to the opportunity for Committee members to engage with those who make the presentations. (May I, as a practical measure, ask those who make presentations to speak slowly – translated. We want to hear what you say.)

Based on the discussions today, we will write a first draft of the General Comment, which will be placed on the website, and the Committee will start with the process of considering it in July, in an open session. We hope to have the next draft, for the second reading, ready by the end of this year, or the beginning of next year. We will then make that new draft available for the second round of public comments, written and oral, this time also by States. With a little bit of luck, we should be able to have the final version of General Comment 37 ready by the end of next year.


Ladies and gentlemen, allow me, in conclusion, to thank my colleagues on the HRC for the opportunity to serve as the rapporteur on this general comment. Coming on the heels of the last general comment lead by Yuval Shany and the late Sir Nigel Rodley, is a hard, but inspiring act to follow.

I am a firm believer in the idea that human rights are a vital force growing from the ground up.  Some of us have the opportunity to attend discussions in Palais Wilson, as committee members, or as members from civil society and beyond, and we have the opportunity to help articulate human rights normative frameworks. This is an important task. But let us not forget that those frameworks are meant to provide space for those who give contents to human rights, through their daily struggles to live dignified lives.