Defending Dissent

New Report by International Human Rights Clinic Offers Guidelines on How Governments Can Protect Rights of Protesters

Aaron Tucek, '19, (second from left) joins some of the clinic's partners in presenting their findings in Geneva, Switzerland.
Aaron Tucek, '19, (second from left) joins some of the clinic's partners in presenting their findings in Geneva, Switzerland.

The University of Chicago’s International Human Rights Clinic and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) launched a report today that provides practical guidance on how law enforcement can protect human rights when policing protests.

Defending Dissent: Towards State Practices that Protect and Promote The Rights to Protest aims to bridge the divide between principles and practice by offering concrete examples and analysis of existing laws, institutional mechanisms and processes, and deployment tactics and strategies that work to promote—or, in some cases, undermine—protests and public assemblies. The report relies on extensive comparative desk research, interviews with policing experts in eight countries, and the expertise of INCLO member organizations engaged in advocacy on human rights and policing.

“Our hope is that the report will foster real—and much needed—dialogue between police and civil society by identifying concrete ways in which public speech and assembly can be, and sometimes are, protected by police departments, said IHRC Director Claudia Flores, who oversaw three students—Aaron Tucek, Brittany McKinley, and Eleni Christou, all ’19—who conducted research and interviews during the past academic year. “We hope to contribute to a better understanding of how the state and its security institutions should be ensuring access this fundamental democratic right.”

Tucek joined two of the report’s main authors—Marcela Perelman from the Argentinian civil liberties organization CELS and Rob De Luca from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association—in presenting the findings earlier today at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The Palace of Nations, or Palais de Nations, is the home of the United Nations office in Geneva.

Working alongside Marcela, Rob, and the rest of the INCLO drafting team has been a remarkable experience, and it is an honor to help present this report at the United Nations in Geneva,” Tucek said.  "The freedoms to speak and assemble are fundamental. Every person, by virtue of being a person, has a right to them. At a time when human rights so often feel threatened or in retreat, it is more important than ever for governments to protect and promote the rights to protest. Our hope is that this report will provide a road map for doing so.”

Protests and public gatherings are a central tool of public expression, often serving as the only avenue for advocacy seeking political, social or economic reform—and yet, many states have failed to adequately protect protest and public speech, the authors of the report said. In fact, state policing institutions overwhelmingly treat protests, assemblies, and other gatherings as security threats that should be eliminated or discouraged. This approach to public assembly can lead police to resort to excessive, arbitrary and discriminatory force during protests, even in the absence of any legal violations, the authors said.

The report offers authorities a toolkit to evaluate their existing policies, practices, and institutional mechanisms. It provides detailed discussions of how to implement legal principles, addresses the kinds of challenges and complications that can arise, and highlights general principles and good practices of protest policing, calling attention to existing tactics and strategies through cases studies of successful (and unsuccessful) policing approaches gathered from countries around the world.

“This report provides an important tool for the work of national human rights organizations," Perelman said. "It also brings in the global perspective to the global debate and it shows that the standards for which we fight are possible and have an empirical foundation/base.”

The report is organized around three themes: preventive measures and institutional design, tactics and the use of force, and accountability and oversight. Within these themes, the report identifies 12 core principles and 33 good practices essential for their realization.

"Freedom of expression and assembly are the bedrock of democracy, and there are international legal standards that safeguard these rights, De Luca said. “However, there is an absence of research and direction from a human rights perspective that provides practical guidance for the implementation and application by the state and its policing institutions of these international standards. This report aims to fill that void.”

International human rights Policing