The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has welcomed new guidance from the UN Human Rights Committee extending the right of peaceful assembly to online platforms.
The UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) adopted General Comment No. 37 on July 23, defining the right of peaceful assembly and lawful restrictions on protests. The committee formulated its legal interpretation as people have been participating in Black Lives Matter and other demonstrations during the COVID-19 outbreaks around the world. Special Rapporteur Clement Voule said on Wednesday: ” By focusing extensively on the intersection of digital technologies and the right to peaceful assembly, General Comment 37 sets out a clear framework to protect this fundamental right in the digital era…It firmly settles the debate about whether the right to peaceful assembly extends to online activities, says governments should not block or hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies, and questions the chilling effect of surveillance technologies.”
The legal advice comes from the 18 experts on the UNHRC who monitor how countries implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The panel’s General Comment notes that governments have the right to restrict protests on public health grounds within reason. “The protection of ‘public health’ ground may exceptionally permit restrictions to be imposed, for example, where there is an outbreak of an infectious disease and gatherings are dangerous,” the report said. Christof Heyns, a committee member, added that a government could limit the number of demonstrations in a public square to accommodate social distancing. The General Comment noted that restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly might occur on the grounds of public safety, public order, and the protection of others’ morals and rights.
However, the report stressed the grounds for restrictions should not be used to unduly restrict demonstrations, emphasizing “assemblies are a legitimate use of public and other spaces.” In addition to the general framework for restrictions, the Comment stated any restrictions must be content-neutral, and the rules applicable to freedom of expression should be followed. Further, the document said that states have duties “not to prohibit, restrict, block or disrupt assemblies without compelling justification.” Notably, the Comment states that protestors have the right to wear protective gear such as masks or hoods to cover their faces while participating in protests and demonstrations. Additionally, governments should not collect personal data to harass or intimidate protest participants. It also stressed the right of journalists and human rights observers to monitor and document any assembly, including violent and unlawful ones.