Protestors- The Maker of History Jeffrey Ip Cheuk Yan Current Affairs secretary World University Service, HKUSE, HKUSL
Three years before, Time magazine has named "The Protester" as its Person of the Year for 2011, citing a worldwide outburst of people power in the form of civil resistance. According to the editors of Time, the celebration of protester is to defend the idea "that individual action can bring collective, colossal change". This collectivity has spread like wildfire– each protest, revolution and occupation triggering new uprisings against state oppression, class inequality and police brutality. From the Arab spring against authoritarian rule to the discontent at Time magazine 2011 Person of the
austerity policies in Athens, from the condemnation of
Year– "The Protester"
economic inequality during Occupy Wall Street to Moscow’s cry for political reforms, 2011 has been a year full of protests across the globe. Even as this edition of Time goes out of print, protestors continue to play a large role in global affairs - three years onwards, the world’s streets remain alive with protest. The year 2013 saw incessant calls for change, with social media continuing to play a crucial role in mobilizing demonstrators.
The Right to protest But what gives us the right to protest? While no human rights instrument or national constitution grants the absolute right to protest, this term is perceived as a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech, of which the latter three has been recognized as a human right, a political right and a form of civil liberty in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. With the progression of social advocacy of human rights, more of such declarations contain clear enunciations of the right of protest, especially when it comes to the defense of human rights. The notable example is to the 1998 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, where most nations on earth agreed to take all necessary steps to ensure the protection of those who defend human rights. This right applies to protest marches and demonstrations, press conferences, public and private meetings, counterdemonstrations, â€˜sit-insâ€™, motionless protests etc. Up to this point, the right to protest becomes the guardian of other human rights and their implementation.
Protesters versus Authorities Though the right to protest has been applauded by most counties in the first place, the extent of implementation varied among them. In fact, the face appeared in 2011 Timeâ€™s front page can give some clues, At first glance, the feminine subject looks to be a fusion of several kinds of protester â€“ a woolly beanie hat, a teargas-preventing scarf partially covering the face. The hat and scarf seems to have represented the anonymity and vigilance of the protestors. Why is it an international phenomenon that protestors hide their identities? The answer stems from governmental suppression.
Over the last several years, demonstrations, large and small, have been met with disproportionate police presence. Unarmed protestors have faced aggressive, jackbooted riot police armed with semi-automatic rifles, tear gas, rubber bullets and sonic cannons. Organizers of demonstrations have been harassed and even preemptively arrested before major events. Organizers have also faced propaganda efforts that have attempted to demonize the protestors, which have effectively reduced turnout, while some cities have established "free speech zones" which serve to reduce turnout and visibility of protests. All kinds of effort by the
authorities are deemed as in ignorance of the right to protest.
Many Arab Spring demonstrations have been met with violent responses from authorities, as well as from progovernment militias and counter-demonstrators. The Occupy Wall Street sit-ins had been dispersed by police with pepper spray and rubber bullets. More recent examples are in Egypt and Ukraine: In Egypt, the interim government launched a violent crackdown on its opposition, culminating in over 1000 dead in Cairo alone. It also had enacted a bunch of laws and applied for a variety of court orders in a continuing campaign to crack down on deposed President Mohammed Morsiâ€™s supporters. In Ukraine, riot police have used excessive force during the current demonstrations based on accounts from witnesses. It is described that police attacks on people who were not using violence, including journalists and the elderly. There is already a global consensus by most nations on earth that the right to protest cannot be interfered with, even if it is likely to cause inconvenience, or if there is potential tension and heated exchange between opposing groups. Furthermore, governing body should restrain itself from resorting to violence when there is disagreement with
the views of the protesters, for there is a positive obligation by the state to take reasonable steps to facilitate any human rights attached to all kinds of protests, and to protect participants in peaceful demonstrations from disruption by others. Police should use force only when strictly necessary, in a manner proportionate to the threat, as well as minimize the injury they cause.
Arguments against full implementation of the right to protest All kinds of protests, no matter how legitimate their underlying reasons are, needs to have restrictions â€“ whilst the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes the extreme legitimacy and protection of protest activities, it contains prohibitions on advocacy of "national, racial or religious hatredâ€?. This means that the restriction of the freedom to assembly will be permitted, if it is necessary in a democratic society to protect the interests of national security or public safety, public order, public health or morals, and ultimately, the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Undoubtedly, violence should never be encouraged during protest activities, and there shall not be any incitement to hatred involved. However, regarding national security, public safety and social order, the line drawn in between is often not clear-cut. Some governments will interfere or even crack down the process on the pretext of protecting public safety, often even when the protest is conducted peacefully and orderly. Sadly, the aggression against protestors is unanimous throughout all countries â€“ across democratic and authoritarian governing bodies. The only difference is the extent and nature of the interference.
Second, no declaration relevant to human rights is legally binding, though it has achieved the status of customary international law. States are not required to adopt the elements of the declarations as binding national legislation. So violation of national laws becomes an effective tool for governments to prosecute protestors, such as anti-protest laws, national security acts and even anti-terrorism legislation. The most recent example is in Egypt, where the interim government had passed a number of laws and regulations to confiscate the right of the peaceful assembly and to subject it to the security stateâ€™s grip. Other means are also being practiced by countries, for instance, the
governments may impose various restrictions on protest activities and the organizations responsible like the establishment of free speech zones, the biased mapping of rally routes by the authority, and any other attempts to dampen the turnout and visibility of protests. Even in the USA, there is an Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) that criminalizes basic protest tactics like picketing, boycotts and educating the public (All activities that are protected by the First Amendment) which are perceived for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.
Moreover, security officers are entitled to use force if threatened by protestors. This threat is subjective and if often exaggerated, leading to officers abusing this power. Regrettably, violent government suppression is often answered with equal violence from protestors, leading the whole protest activity to spiral out of control. The original intention of the protest is blurred.
Forwards Protest, as a major form of civil resistance, has become the source of power in reshaping global politics and redefining people power. The anonymity of protestors, as imaged in 2011 Time magazine, reflected the leaderlessness (but definitely not the lack of structure) of many of the global protests, an indications of their strength and their mass character. However, the right to protest has been deliberately violated by authorities unreasonably. Human rights declarations can no longer be act as a powerful tool in applying diplomatic and moral pressure to governments that violate any of its articles. So what will be the new source of power to support this global movement? Maybe it is the collective will of the people to uphold rights and justice.
Published on Jan 13, 2014