Without the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, one is not a citizen: an interview with Clément Nyaletsossi Voule

The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are both fundamental human rights enshrined in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Articles 21 and 22 of the ICCPR recognize the right of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association, which must not be restricted unless required by law or in the interests of national security or public safety. However, the freedom of peaceful assembly and association are being increasingly restricted in today’s world, undermining the public’s ability to gather, mobilize, share ideas, and participate in politics. 

Clément Nyaletsossi Voule

Prachatai speaks to Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, on the importance of the freedom of association and assembly in democratic societies, restrictions on these rights, and the role of the internet in political participation.

What is the importance of the freedoms of association and assembly?

When we talk about the freedoms of association and freedom of peaceful assembly that are guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), this is a tool, important rights that enable citizens, groups, individuals like you and me to decide that we want to organize ourselves, that we want to associate, because we want to constitute ourselves as a group to promote the rights that are enshrined in the ICCPR. But we also want to associate to be able to participate in the development of our country, because that’s the right to allow us to constitute as a group, like a women’s group, community group, to participate in cultural activity, to participate in artistic activity, to participate in many things that are really the substance of what we call a society, to constitute ourselves to defend even our land, to defend our rights, to prevent climate change, to prevent a lot of things. Without association, without the capability of us to join our forces together, we won’t be able to tackle some of the challenges that we’re facing in our society. We have to associate as citizens in our country. That’s why we guarantee the right of everybody to associate, to be able to join a group is important, because you join a group for a purpose. You join an association because you know that what they defend is important. It helps your society to move ahead and to improve lives within your society.

At the same time, the assembly, once you associate, you need to also have the right to assembly. You need to have the right, for example, to meet among you, or either at some time, also to express your satisfaction or dissatisfaction on how your country or your leaders are ruling the country, because this makes you a citizen. In a country where people are not able to assemble, they are not able also to protest. They aren’t able to express what they see as good or bad policies. Then, they are not a citizen. I’m sure you’d agree with me that, without these rights, it’s like you’re living in a country where you don’t have any participation right. You don’t participate in your country. The participation on political rights and the participation in democracy are important for any citizen to be an agent of change and development. That’s why I personally call these two rights, the right to associate and the right to assembly, as enabling rights, because it’s enabling you and me to be an agent of change in our country. It enables us to promote and to protect these rights. The universal declaration also says that everybody, and if you read also the UN declaration on human rights defenders, that also says that the responsibility of groups and individuals to promote and protect rights. And this responsibility is also to tell us that you have rights to come together to promote human rights. If we don’t have the right to association, if we don’t have the right to assembly, we cannot defend our own human rights, that’s why they are enabling rights.

How does the freedom of association and assembly affect a state in transition from one regime to another?

In the resolution that set up my mandate, if you go back, and I also invite you to go back to this resolution, you can see that one of the paragraphs says that the rights to associate and assembly are democratic rights. And these rights are important for any democratic society as it allows groups, individuals, and marginalized groups to be able to voice their view, to be able to express their concerns within an open society.

These rights are important in terms of change. Any democratic transition is always triggered by the fact that at some point people feel like we need to move to another society. This is what you can see in most of the countries that went through revolution, through transition change. The protection of association rights and freedom of association and assembly is important for any peaceful transition.

In a country where there is a rejection of any rights for people to peacefully assembly, to express their view on what political regime they want, then, you can see that the peaceful transition is compromised.

You can see it in many countries, in many societies. Let me give the example of Syria. Because people were not able at the beginning to have the right to peaceful demonstration, so, we end up having the tragedy in Syria today, where the wish of people to have a peaceful political transition ends by violence because their rights to peaceful demonstration and assembly were not respected, were not guaranteed. That’s why it’s really important.

Whenever we talk about peaceful assembly, this is the understanding that the state should guarantee that people have rights to demonstrate without restriction, without any harm to them.

Whenever states use excessive force, you’re telling people exactly that I’m not accepting your right to peaceful demonstration, and the reaction that you’ll get from people is ‘okay, we don’t have this right to peaceful demonstration’, this is what triggers violence.

The state will ensure and put in every means to let people know that you have the rights to associate, rights to peaceful association, exercise your rights peacefully, exercise your rights within a context where we guarantee these rights. That’s the principles that we want you to exercise these rights, not to repress you.

The first two countries where I visited since I took the mandate were countries where there was a political transition. To me, it was important to go in these countries. Tunisia, where since 2011, Tunisians decided to move into a democratic country.

Tunisia is the one of the only countries where the Arab Spring ended by a peaceful transition, because people are able to exercise their rights to assembly. Even though in the very beginning there was a lot of repression, today it’s important that within the political transition, the people understand that a guarantee of the right of assembly and association is important in order to have a sustainable democracy.

Also, I was in Armenia recently in November (2018). Armenia decided to move to another democratic regime. And the exercise of peaceful demonstration is important for Armenians to express their view on what kind of regime they want. So I was in Armenia and I insisted on the fact that it’s important that the peaceful assembly and association be the heritage to the transition because it helps the country to move, and also to have a sustainable democracy, you have to guarantee these rights, the full access of these rights.

When you talk about the ‘full access’ to the rights to association and assembly, to what extent would that be?

For me the full access of the rights is that, the first thing for me is to understand that the exercise of the rights is the rule. Limitations should be the exception, only the exception which is narrowly defined in the convention, in Article 21 It means that in the ICCPR, there are strict limitations to when the state can limit the exercise of peaceful assembly, in a situation where there’s the issue of emergency, a situation where, for example, you can see them on Article 21 and a situation where there is a very high security concern.

The limitation should be time-bound. It’s not having to have a general limitation like adopting an emergency law and say that the law was adopted because of security concerns and must stay there forever. In some countries, you have emergency laws that are there forever, which would limit the people’s right to assembly. You have to ensure that those are time-bound, because as soon as the reason why this limitation is there is no longer there, you have to lift the limitation.

The limitation also has to be proportional. To me, proportionality means also that the limitation should not go beyond the limitation needed to safeguard against the risk you want to prevent. You can’t just, for example, forbid demonstrations just because you’re in an election period where in the election period it is important, for example, to ensure people have freedom to exercise their rights to assembly and association, and also for political parties to exercise this right to assemble people to talk to them about politics. You cannot limit it because you say we want a peaceful election. There’s no proportionality. There is no harm, why do you need that? It’s important that in an election period, people can mobilize themselves to agree on a political agenda. So you need also to have this necessity, proportionality, and also time-binding of this limitation. This is why I emphasize this, that the full exercise of the rights should be the principle.

What do you see as the overall situation of freedom of association and peaceful assembly in Southeast Asia?

Since I came here and during regional consultations, one of the things I realized from the testimony, from the discussions is that in this region, there is still a lot to do to ensure that everybody enjoy the rights of association and peaceful assembly. In particular, some governments resolved to place limitations where they are not necessary, when they are not allowed under international law.

For example, we have this limitation during an election period. In many countries in South Asia, the elections sometime are the periods where some governments want to avoid any kind of challenge from other political parties. They use this period to limit some rights. Some that we hear about are limitations on access to the internet. Either they drop the internet from 4G to 2G to limit people’s right to use the internet to mobilize, to online assembly, which is not, from my perspective, needed because an election is the particular period where you have to ensure that people exercise these rights, where citizens are able to connect to political party leaders, that they are also able, during this time, to challenge the agenda of the political parties.

If you don’t guarantee that people can use all peaceful means to really assembly, to really discuss about the political future of the nation, at that time you are not giving the citizens the possibility to decide freely who they want as a leader, who they want to give their trust to.

One of the important aspects of the freedoms of association and assembly during the election period is because it helps people to decide who they want to give this legitimacy to. If they are not able to assemble, they are not able to associate during this period to discuss what agenda they want for our country for the next years, how can they decide to give this legitimacy?

If you don’t give them the possibility to assemble, the election is not fair. You need to guarantee that the political parties, even if they are from the opposition or whatever, have these rights to assembly, to talk to their supporters, to be able to discuss even with those who aren’t supporting them, to convince them about their agenda.

This is a common trend during the election period, and the ongoing one is really the right situation around online assembly. The use of technology by people to mobilize is important. At the same time, I also realize that the government also puts a lot of restrictions through limitations of access online. There is also another that I realize is the cyber security law. This is one of the biggest concerns in this region, and also, anti-terrorism laws where they are misused to limit the rights of association and assembly.

Please elaborate more about freedom of association and assembly online. This is very new.

Association and assembly online is a new area that my mandate is trying to explore. Based on the discussions that I had with civil societies and governments, most of them express the importance for the mandate to elaborate more on freedom of association and assembly online. There is interest both from the state and from civil society to understand this better, because technology is important for our lives. Today, it’s difficult to imagine physical association without online association, or physical assembly without online assembly, because today, everything starts on the internet. We are in what many people call the open world where we connect to each other.

You don’t necessarily have to take a flight but are able to connect and discuss what is important. Today, people are using the internet to start discussions, to mobilize about climate change. Today, people don’t meet but associate online to tackle, for example, issues around violence against women or issues around trafficking. The internet helps them to associate with each other and also to protest.

But at the same time, we see in many countries today that because of this cyber-crime law, anti-terrorism law, some governments put restrictions on online assembly. Why? Because they know that this online assembly mobilizes a lot of people, that people start discussions there and then talk about where will they meet, what they can do.

Assembly online supports offline assembly and vice versa. Both spaces are important for us to exercise democratic rights, to exercise our freedom of association and assembly. And today some restrictions are put in place. I’m trying to explore how this space is important for people to connect, to challenge the difficulties that our world is facing, the difficulties that society is facing, and how they are also prevented from doing that and how this impacts the rights protected under the ICCPR, meaning the rights of assembly and association. These are some of the key issues that I’m exploring, but I’m convinced that, today, online association and assembly is important as one way to exercise our democratic rights because it opens our society.

What have you seen on the debate and discussion about the freedom of association and assembly online?

From I hear up to now, people value the importance of online association and assembly. There are many examples today: the recent campaign on #MeToo, the recent campaign on Boko haram (#BringBackOurGirls), the recent campaign on climate change. Today people see the value of ensuring that the internet to be used by citizens to express their concerns, to connect themselves, to participate in the development of their country through different kinds of association that they can have online. There are also some challenges, because some groups use hate speech on the internet. They also understand that some countries need to take some measures to ensure that this space is safely used. but these measures need to really not undermine human rights. These measures need to be set up in order to help people exercise their rights, not to limit their rights.

Many countries in this region have some kind of Public Assembly Act. What should be the best practice for this kind of law?

The first thing I insisted in any law that regulate the assembly or association is that the principle should be the principle of information, not authorisation. For example, when people decided to associate themselves, the law shouldn’t require for them to have a specific document before they start to operate. The best practice should be that they inform the authority and send them all the relevant documents that shows what is the purpose of the association and what they want to promote. As soon as they sent the documents, they should be allowed to operate.

But there are also many associations in some countries that can be informal. Like, some social movement groups, they want to defend the rights but they don’t want to be in the formal setting. So, the law should allow different types of association, either formal or informal association because the purpose should be that as soon as the purpose is to promote the rights, to serve the community, to me it shouldn’t be prohibited, because it serves the society.

Also the same for assembly. Whenever people want to assemble, it should be that the law should only require that people inform the authorities, not to request authorization, because assembly is a fundamental right. The purpose of informing the authority is to ensure that the authority take the measure whenever it is needed to secure the assembly of the people. When the law is trying to say “okay, you need authorisation because we need to take the security measure”, it’s not in everyday and every country that people need the police before the assembly.

It’s not every assembly that poses a threat to the security of the country, but when the law imposed that you need to receive authorisation because your assembly, it means the laws is saying that any assembly carry the security concern. Why in our society we cannot just come together and discuss or go on the road and say that we are against the fact that there are taxes that are added to the product and everything. Do we need to hold the security for them to come? No, because sometime they live in the community that doing in what they believe and believe in the issues that we defend. That’s why for me the principle should be information.

And it’s only in the narrow situation where there is a threat that you will be attacked by the other group so that the police will take measure to ensure that you exercise your rights without other people, other groups that want to disrupt your assembly to achieve their purpose.

Unfortunately, in many countries, there is principle of authorisation. Some governments use this than just receiving the information. You informed them and they want you to wait for the government to tell you if it’s a yes or not, to assembly or not. This is a bad practice for me because you are trying to limit people rights to assembly.

There are narrative from people that Freedom of Association and Assembly means protest and chaos, leading to a negative perception of Freedom of Association and Assembly.  What is your view on this?

The right to assembly is not the right to disrupt public safety. We need to ask why we need associate. I explained that at the beginning. We need to associate because we are human, because we are in a community. Without this kind of association, we are not able to come together and to think as a group on how we need political party to reinforce our democracy. We are not under one party just because all of us has to think the same way. We need diversity of people, we need diversity of groups in order to have a debate and see what’s good for our country. We need that assembly because it helps us. The protest also helps us to express our view on what political party should take as the priority for the country.

If we aren’t able (to associate and assembly), if there some eviction in one part of the country, we, as a part of the society, should be allowed to come on the street to say that this kind of eviction is not humane. You need to stop it because it affects people’s lives. if you aren’t able to come together and to come to the street to express our view, how come we are human in this society and we are not concern about what happening to others.

The purpose of the guarantee of this right is not to disrupt the public safety. It is to help improving the society that we are living in. The right to assembly is not just to come on the road and walk. It’s also the different ways. You can also protest through the artistic way, for example, painting. There are different ways you can protest. We need to think about that as a positive mean to achieve the development, to achieve also the safety and peace.

Any peaceful society will allow people to be able to express their view. The dissident view is important. If you are in the society that cannot accept the dissident opinion, then we are not living in a democratic society. People need to understand themselves that in our country we have all peaceful means to express ourselves. We don’t need to resort to violence. If you can’t guarantee the peaceful mean to people, the only thing they will resort to is to violence. Because they know that the society are unable to guarantee them to hear their view. It is in the interest of our society to guarantee this kind of means to people, peaceful means. 

And this is also the work of human rights defender to try to remind the government that this kind of violation is dangerous, because it put the people in the situation where they don’t feel like they’re part of the society and sometime it pushes them to use either violent means which is not what we wish in a peaceful society.