Panel on peaceful protests: China delivers joint statement on behalf of 32 States
Wednesday, 21 September 2011 16:36


On 13 September the Human Rights Council (the Council) held a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The panel was part of the Council’s attempt to start a constructive debate between States, human rights institutions, and non-governmental organisations to address recent events in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. It was a well-timed discussion, sending a message to governments that peaceful protests should be viewed as an opportunity to connect with the people, understand their concerns, and ultimately improve society, rather than responding to the events by engaging in aggression and violence.


The holding of the panel was mandated by the Council’s decision 17/12 adopted at the 17th session, which requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to liaise with relevant special procedures, States, stakeholders, and UN agencies to ensure their participation in the panel discussion. The decision also called for OHCHR to prepare a summary report on the outcome of the panel discussion.


Switzerland had sponsored the decision convening the panel and invited seven key speakers from government, the UN and regional human rights mechanisms, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and civil society[1] to provide expert input for the panel. In recent months, the Council has addressed the issue of the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests through its examination of country-specific situations, including in respect of Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Syria. It also passed  resolution 15/21 in October 2010 on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and requested States to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully. Through this resolution the Council established a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. At the height of the ‘Arab spring’ in early 2011, efforts to convene the Council in a special session to address several similar situations in Egypt, Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen failed, as did a compromise proposal to hold a thematic special session on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The final compromise was the holding of this panel during the 18th session.


The panellists shared a common view that the State has the primary responsibility to protect protestors during peaceful demonstrations. Mr Mohamed Nasheed, President of Maldives, emphasised that peaceful demonstrations allow governments to engage in dialogue with the people and address their demands. In their opening statements, the expert panel referred to the events in Syria and Libya, and highlighted the importance of States refraining from using force against unarmed participants in peaceful demonstrations. In particular, the Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr Maina Kiai, reminded the Council about the three obligations that States have under the legal framework pertaining to this issue: refrain from committing violence, protect individuals from non-State actors, and prevent the eruption of aggression.


The panel identified important areas that need to be considered in the Council to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests. President Mohamed Nasheed, and Mr Canton stressed the urgent need to provide guidance for States on how to deal with peaceful protests, especially in regards to prosecuting those who commit violence against protestors, and making a clear distinction between internal security as a function for the police and national defence as a function for the armed force. The roles of police and media during peaceful demonstrations were identified as two other crucial areas requiring the Council’s attention. In particular, the panellists asserted that the police carry the responsibility to ensure non-violence during demonstrations. In addition, modern communication technology should not be suppressed and citizens should be allowed to mobilise and convey their message to their government.


Most States focused on the concerns raised by the panel and the dialogue was rather constructive. Switzerland and Egypt concurred with the panel’s claim that the State carries primary responsibility to ensure protestors’ rights are protected during peaceful demonstrations, and that governments need to enter into national dialogue with the people.


However, China in a rare display of its mobilising power, presented a joint statement on behalf of Bahrain, Yemen and 30 other States.[2] The statement underscored the sovereignty of States, and emphasised that the international community must not intervene in matters that are within the domestic jurisdiction of States. The statement was also notable in that it acknowledged that ‘governments should earnestly listen to and address people’s legitimate aspirations’. It referred to the use of communication tools and social media in facilitating people’s daily exchanges and promoting freedom of expression. China also stated that in ‘recent social turmoil in many States misuse of social media may become problematic’ and urged the Council to consider ways to address the negative impact of social media while making best use of it, describing this as a common problem faced by all countries.


The Russian delegation claimed that personal interests rather than public often drive demonstrations. It claimed that intervention by authorities is often necessary to prevent the potential spread of anarchy in society as a result of protests spiralling out of control. The vast majority of States who spoke, however, shared the view that peaceful protests are needed for improving democracy and promoting people’s social and political rights. Governments must respond to this in an open dialogue rather than intervening forcefully and attempting to settle uprisings by force.


The panellists acknowledged States’ concerns and made a number of concrete recommendations to the Council. These included  a recommendation  to promote networks of international and regional partners to discuss and share best practices in relation to promotion of peaceful assembly, and urging the design of a comprehensive framework to govern freedom of assembly and to guide States in their response to peaceful protests.  Unfortunately the time for the panel was not well-managed, with just over half of those States signed up to speak able to take the floor. As a result the time given to panellists to respond to States’ comments was very brief.


The discussions allowed the Council to identify important areas for consideration, especially how governments should respond to such events and ensure the protection of the demonstrators’ rights. OHCHR will now prepare an outcome document of the panel discussion. However, further developments relating to the issue will no doubt require more deliberation by the Council on the concrete recommendations that emerged from the panel.

[1] Madame Kyung-Wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the panel discussions, other statements were made by Mr Mohamed Nasheed, President of Maldives, Mr Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom on peaceful assembly and of association, Mr Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Mr Michael Hamilton, Secretary to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ms Lake Tee Khaw, Vice Chairperson of SUHAKAM the Malaysian human rights Commission and Mr Bahey el-din Hassan, General Director, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

[2] Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Congo, Cuba, Democractic People‘s Republic of Korea, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iran, Kuwait, Lao People‘s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Namibia, Nicuragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uganda, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe. 

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 September 2011 09:12
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