Protesters gather at a park in Brooklyn, New York City to demonstrate against racism and police violence. Photo by Daniel Dickinson for United Nations.

How Do You Define Lawful Peaceful Protest?

People have the right to demonstrate peacefully and governments should respect international law and let them do so, senior United Nations-appointed independent rights experts have said.

The legal advice is from the UN Human Rights Committee, whose 18 experts monitor how countries implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The panel’s General Comment, notes that protesters have the right to wear masks or hoods to cover their face and that governments should not collect personal data to harass or intimidate participants.

The development comes at a time of worldwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and clarifies how “peaceful assembly” should be understood by the 173 countries which have ratified the Covenant. 

Committee member Christof Heyns, said that it was a “fundamental human right” for people to gather to celebrate or to air grievances, “in public and in private spaces, outdoors, indoors and online.”

“Everyone, including children, foreign nationals, women, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, can exercise the right of peaceful assembly”, he added.

The Committee’s advice also notes that governments could not prohibit protests by making “generalized references to public order or public safety, or an unspecified risk of potential violence”.

In addition, governments “cannot block internet networks or close down any website because of their roles in organizing or soliciting a peaceful assembly”, according to the Committee.

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

The Committee’s interpretation will be important guidance for judges in national and regional courts around the world. Several countries have already provided comments, including the United States. It’s detailed response expressed concerns with the Committee’s interpretive practice generally, adding that this is beyond the Committee’s authority and mandate and contrary to international law.

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