Blog: Protest and Assembly Rights
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December 4, 2019
On November 26, 2019, experts in international law urged the Bolivian Government to abide by its international legal obligations to protect the freedom of assembly and prohibit the excessive use of force against civilian protesters. In a statement signed by a former president and a former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission, two former and the current UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, two former UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Conditions, as well as leading scholars in international law, the experts made clear what the Bolivian Government’s obligations are under international law.
Since October 20, 2019, there have been reports of deaths and injuries resulting from Bolivia’s social conflict. “In recent weeks, however, there has been a marked increase in the number of reported deaths attributed to security forces policing protests,” said Thomas Becker, Instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “The escalation in the use of lethal force by the Bolivian military and security forces is extremely concerning.”
In their statement, the experts highlighted that Bolivia’s international legal obligations require it to ensure that security forces responding to protests only use lethal force to protect life and only as a last resort. Indiscriminately firing into a crowd of protesters is never allowed.
The experts also raised concerns about the Bolivian Government’s apparent attempt to institute impunity measures through Supreme Decree 4078, which was issued on November 15, 2019. The decree purports to immunize “personnel of the Armed Forces participating in the operations to reestablish internal order and stability” for all actions undertaken in response to the current protests in the country. Under international law, domestic measures that attempt to create such impunity for gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, are invalid.
“The Inter-American Court has held time and again that actions seeking to create impunity for gross human rights violations are incompatible with the American Convention. Governments and their security forces should know that they are not above the law despite domestic measures attempting to immunize them, and the Supreme Decree should be rescinded,” said Claret Vargas, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability.
Read the full statement from the Center for Justice and Accountability here.
September 18, 2017
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
“Freedom of Expression and LGBTI Equality in Jamaica”
A talk by Maurice Tomlinson, Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Lunch will be served
Please join us for a talk by Maurice Tomlison, Attorney and Senior Policy Analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, about his legal advocacy to challenge the repression of the LGBTI community’s freedom of expression in Jamaica. Mr. Tomlinson, the recipient of the David Kato Vision and Voice Award, serves as counsel and sometimes as claimant in cases that challenge anti-gay laws before senior tribunals in the Caribbean, and leads advocacy engaging U.N. agencies on the human rights situation for LGBTI people in the region. He also documents and reports on human rights abuses, and conducts training and capacity-building for the judiciary and police.
This event is sponsored by the Human Rights Program, Queer Trans People of Color@HLS, HLS Lambda, and HLS Advocates for Human Rights.
July 1, 2016
Moving On: Deborah Popowski to Be Executive Director of NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice
Today we have the mixed blessing of announcing that one of our favorite people is moving on: Deborah Popowski, JD ’08, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, is bringing her considerable talents to New York University (NYU) School of Law as Executive Director of its Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.
It comes as no surprise to us that she was chosen for this leadership role. For the past seven years, Deborah has proven herself to be a visionary inside the International Human Rights Clinic, carving out a critical niche for U.S.-based work. In her time here, she led clinical projects on issues ranging from protest and assembly rights to the right to heal for U.S. service members and Iraqis. She also created a clinical seminar, “Human Rights Advocacy and the United States,” with the Human Rights Program’s former executive director, Clinical Professor Jim Cavallaro.
In particular, Deborah distinguished herself in recent years as a national leader in the grassroots movement to hold U.S. health professionals accountable for torture in the national security sphere. Her approach was both innovative and in-depth: through professional misconduct complaints, legislative advocacy, media outreach and academic conferences, she worked with clients to highlight the actions of psychologists at Guantánamo. Continue Reading…
April 14, 2016
Myanmar: Investigate Use of Excessive Force Against Letpadan Protesters
Hold perpetrators accountable, amend peaceful assembly law
(Yangon, April 14, 2016)—While welcoming the Government of Myanmar’s recent release of political prisoners, Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic urged authorities today to open a formal investigation into the violent police crackdown against protesters in March 2015 in Letpadan.
The Letpadan protesters were among nearly 200 political prisoners that the recently elected Government of Myanmar—led by the National League for Democracy (NLD)—either pardoned or dropped charges against on April 8. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced on her second day in office a plan to free political prisoners, activists, and students in the weeks surrounding the Buddhist New Year holiday. According to human rights groups, more than 100 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“After spending more than a year in prison for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, the Letpadan protesters are finally free,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Their courage and tenacity is an example to human rights defenders across the world. We commend the government for prioritizing their release and urge the authorities to take swift action to hold perpetrators accountable.”
In October 2015, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School published an 81-page report documenting how Myanmar police officers punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs at Letpadan on March 10, 2015. Hundreds of photographs and dozens of videos from journalists and other witnesses show police officers beating unarmed protesters. Still, more than a year later, the authorities have failed to hold anyone responsible for the use of excessive force.
In January 2016, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the Letpadan Justice Committee, and Justice Trust released a briefing paper detailing how Myanmar authorities repeatedly delayed the trials of students arrested at Letpadan and denied them access to adequate medical treatment while in prison.
In addition to investigating the abuses, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School called for the government to hold police officers responsible for using excessive force against protesters. The government should investigate commanders and officials who gave orders to use excessive force or failed to take reasonable measures to prevent such conduct.
“Releasing these protesters and dropping the charges against them is a positive and historic step,” said Tyler Giannini, Director of the Clinic at Harvard Law School. “We look forward to the government upholding its promise to follow the rule of law by investigating and holding perpetrators to account.”
The October 2015 report makes clear that not all police officers at the scene in March 2015 participated in violence. Some police officers used riot shields or their own bodies to protect protesters from attack by other police officers, providing further evidence of the unjustified use of force by some officers. Fortify Rights and the Clinic urged the authorities to highlight commendable police action in any investigation.
The protests in Letpadan stemmed from the September 2014 passage of the National Education Law, which critics said failed to protect the right to form unions and failed to accommodate ethnic communities, among other alleged shortcomings. Protesters in Myanmar took to the streets in January 2015 and continued to march in various locations throughout the country over the next several months.
Many of the Letpadan protesters faced charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior authorization or consent for assemblies and provides penalties of fines and imprisonment for failure to comply, infringing on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School encourage the NLD Government to repeal or amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law to bring it in line with international standards and to prevent it from being used to target human rights defenders.
For more information, please contact:
Tyler Giannini, Director, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic: +1-617-496-7368,
firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HmnRghtsProgram
September 24, 2013
September 25, 2013
“Peaceful Assembly: From Occupy to Taksim Square”
Harvard Law School
Even in the age of electronic communication, the physical presence of demonstrators is an important vehicle for political protest, as recent events around the world confirm. What ground rules should govern the political use of public space? This panel will discuss both First Amendment and international human rights approaches to peaceful assemblies, in general and in relation to the Occupy movement.
Panelists include: Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Charles Fried, Beneficial Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Deborah Popowski, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School; Mark Tushnet, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; and moderator Gerald L. Neuman, J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, Harvard Law School.
November 9, 2012
International Experts Criticize U.S. Response to Occupy; Clinic Presents at Conference on Protest Rights
International Experts Call for U.S. to Respect Protest Rights; Criticize Officials’ Responses to Occupy Movement
(Vienna, Austria, 9 November 2012) – Today, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a report finding that some U.S. authorities’ responses to the Occupy Wall Street movement involved excessive police force, unjustified mass arrests, disproportionately large numbers of police, and violated the rights of journalists.
“The OSCE report confirms recent findings by U.S. groups of violations of protest rights, and demonstrates the urgent need to reform the way some cities, including New York, regulate and police protests,” said Professor Sarah Knuckey of New York University (NYU) School of Law, who co-led an eight-month investigation by law school clinics into the treatment of Occupy Wall Street in New York.
The OSCE findings result from the organization’s first investigations of assembly rights in the United States, and were presented at a meeting of government and civil society representatives from over 50 countries. The United States is a member state of the OSCE, and has committed to guarantee the freedom of peaceful assembly.
The OSCE report issued today recommends that U.S. authorities ensure the right to free assembly, including by facilitating protest camps and marches as much as possible, limiting police use of force, promptly investigating police misconduct, and not dispersing assemblies merely for lack of permits.
The OSCE’s findings follow extensive U.S. civil society reporting of protest rights violations, including a detailed report by law clinics at NYU and Fordham Law Schools, Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street. Professors and students from NYU and Harvard Law School were invited to the OSCE this week to present their findings, and to discuss concerns and reforms with civil society and representatives from governments, the OSCE, and the United Nations. The Clinics, on behalf of U.S. groups, also voiced support for OSCE work monitoring freedom of assembly, and called for continued OSCE work in the United States.
“Attending the OSCE forum gave us an opportunity to hear accounts from people around the world who, like the U.S. Occupy movement, are using public space to voice dissent. These accounts made clear that while peaceful protests are proliferating, so are governments’ tactics of repression,” said Deborah Popowski, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.
“There is no part of the world where suppression of protest is not a problem, and the U.S. is no exception,” said Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, who attended the OSCE meetings.
“Fighting for a meaningful right of free assembly is vital because there can be no democracy without this right. There is no choice – we have to succeed if we want to leave the world a better place for those who come after us,” said Kiai.
About the work of the law clinics here
About OSCE’s work on assembly rights, and its Monitoring Report here.
July 25, 2012
Posted by Deborah Popowski
The first report in our multi-clinic Protest and Assembly Rights Project series calls on New York City authorities to stop the pattern of abusive policing of Occupy Wall Street protests. Lead authored by our partners at NYU and Fordham, the report released today documents in painstaking detail how the New York police and other city officials violated the rights of Occupy protesters.
It also provides background on the national movement and outlines the international legal framework that protects the human rights of assembly and expression, which the United States is legally bound to respect, protect, promote and fulfill. Reports focusing on other cities–including one on Boston authored by our own Clinic–are expected to be released later this year, so stay tuned.
Within hours of its release, this first report has already generated good media coverage, with articles in The New York Times, Alternet, The Atlantic and Gothamist. Below you’ll find the press release from our partners.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Legal Experts File Complaints about Widespread Rights Violations in Policing of ‘Occupy’ Movement
Call on NYC, U.S. Justice Department, UN to Protect Protestors’ Rights
(New York, NY, July 25, 2012) – The City of New York must take immediate action to correct the clear pattern of abusive policing of Occupy Wall Street protests, said legal experts in a complaint filed today with New York City authorities, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the United Nations. The complaint is based on a report providing in-depth documentation and legal analysis of widespread human rights violations in New York City’s treatment of Occupy protests over the past ten months.
“Recently, officers repeatedly yanked the broken collarbone of a protester as he begged them to stop hurting him. And just two weeks ago, a phalanx of officers removed a grandmother from a park for the ‘crime’ of knitting in a folding chair, arrested a man trying to help her leave, and then arrested another man filming the incident,” said Professor Sarah Knuckey, one of the report’s principal authors, who also witnessed these incidents. “These are just two of hundreds of examples we document in our report, demonstrating a pattern of abusive and unaccountable protest policing by the NYPD.”
This report is the first in a series by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project, a national consortium of law school clinics addressing the United States response to Occupy Wall Street. In their 132-page report—Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the U.S. Response to Occupy Wall Street—the experts catalog 130 specific alleged incidents of excessive police force, and hundreds of additional violations, including unjustified arrests, abuse of journalists, unlawful closure of sidewalks and parks to protesters, and pervasive surveillance of peaceful activists. Yet, to date, only one police officer is known to have been disciplined for misconduct in the context of Occupy Wall Street policing.
“The excessive and unpredictable policing of Occupy Wall Street is one more example of the dire need for widespread reform of NYPD practices. These violations are occurring against a backdrop of police infiltration of activist groups, massive stop-and-frisk activity in communities of color, and the surveillance of Muslims,” said Emi MacLean, a human rights lawyer and primary author of the report. “This report is a call to action.”
The report calls for urgent state action, including:
• The creation of an independent Inspector General for the NYPD;
• A full and impartial review of the city’s response to OWS;
• Investigations and prosecutions of responsible officers; and
• The creation of new NYPD protest policing guidelines to protect against rights violations.
If New York authorities fail to respond, the report calls for federal intervention.
“The U.S. response to the Occupy movement – which itself emerged as part of a wave of global social justice protests—is being closely watched by other governments,” said Professor Katherine Glenn, one of the report’s principal authors. “In the face of this international attention, this report shows that New York City’s response actually violates international law and, as such, sets a bad example to the rest of the world. The city now has an opportunity to set this right through reforms that reflect just and accountable policing practices.”
This report is the first in a series by the Protest and Assembly Rights Project. This report focuses on New York City, and was authored by the Global Justice Clinic (NYU School of Law) and the Walter Leitner International Human Rights Clinic (Fordham Law School). Subsequent reports will address the responses in Boston, Charlotte, Oakland, and San Francisco. Participating law clinics are at NYU, Fordham, Harvard, Stanford, Rutgers-Newark, Charlotte, and Loyola-New Orleans.
The report is available here.
Contact: Professor Sarah Knuckey (NYU) +1.212.992.8873; Emi MacLean, Human Rights Lawyer, +1.212.998.6714
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