Discussion on the Guidelines for Lawyers in Support of Peaceful Assemblies
January 24, 2022
Keynote address by Phillip Riblett, Legal Adviser, U.S. Mission Geneva
Thank you for that kind introduction, and greetings to everyone watching online. I would like to thank the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute and the other organizers of this event for inviting me to make this keynote address. I have two objectives today: first, to share substantive observations that may help provoke thought and discussion by the panel; and second, to be mindful of the fact that the presenters who follow me have credentials that are more impressive than mine. So I’ll be brief and then make way for the distinguished experts who follow me.
The Guidelines released by the Special Rapporteur provide a set of meaningful, practical principles and recommendations for lawyers working to promote the rights of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association. These Guidelines are especially timely against the backdrop of peaceful protests in recent years on a range of issues, from racial injustice to elections. I’d like to set the stage for our discussion by asking you to join me in taking a step back and exploring why these Guidelines are so important in the human rights landscape and our work here in Geneva.
The Guidelines can have a significant human rights impact due to the nature of the right of peaceful assembly. The individual rights protected under human rights treaties constitute a cohesive whole, a range of protections to which individuals are entitled. What ultimately matters most is the implementation of those obligations by states, so we strive to identify ways to enhance that implementation. Respecting exercise of the right of peaceful assembly is a critical implementation enhancer. In other words, respect for the right of peaceful assembly promotes the protection of other human rights.
Of course, individuals may engage in peaceful assembly for any number of reasons. But one purpose may be to protest what they view as a government’s failure to uphold its human rights obligations. An individual with, for example, a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, or a right to form trade unions, might exercise the right of peaceful assembly and protest a government’s policies if those rights are threatened. Peaceful protest can serve an accountability function, applying pressure on governments to change rights-violating behavior, and thereby improving implementation by states of human rights obligations.
Despite this crucial role – or indeed perhaps because of it – this right and others like it are under significant pressure in the world today. While the nature of peaceful assembly or association is that it involves multiple individuals, peaceful assembly is still a right that belongs to individuals. Individuals choose to associate with other individuals and assemble, but the right does not belong to the group – it belongs to the individual. It is a fundamental principle of human rights law that rights belong to the individual, and this is based upon the dignity that each of us has as an individual human being.
That fundamental premise of human rights belonging to individuals is under threat, including here in Geneva. There are some who are presenting an alternative vision of human rights that is unrecognizable to human rights experts. In this alternative vision, the protection of individual human rights is subordinated to the government’s promotion of social harmony and economic development for the country as a whole. The Human Rights Council is seen as a forum for promoting cooperation among governments and avoiding awkward conversations about things happening within the territory of a country. This alternative vision is of course antithetical to human rights, and the U.S. Mission spends a lot of our time pushing back against it.
At any given time, the views expressed by individuals in a peaceful assembly will seem inconvenient, threatening, or simply annoying to some other individuals, often including individuals in the government. In a healthy society, individuals air their grievances and express their views. It is in our nature to communicate with others to express our views, and to organize with others. Democracy is messy. People disagree. Society is not harmonious, because all individuals have unique life experience shaping their views and what they expect from their government and their fellow human beings. A government that inappropriately constrains that expression fosters an unhealthy society. There is a reason why the allowable restrictions on peaceful assembly are narrow and specific in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
It is the government’s responsibility to preserve space for disagreement, and it is the lawyer’s job to make sure the government preserves that space. Lawyers are the ones who help enable the exercise of the right of peaceful assembly – a right that, when exercised, enhances the implementation of other human rights.
We are having this event today because it is the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer. There is a reason human rights lawyers are endangered – because they are making an impact that is inconvenient for people in positions of power. If the work human rights lawyers are doing did not have an impact, no one would care or be inconvenienced by it – we would all just carry on as we were. The fact that human rights lawyers are under threat itself demonstrates their effectiveness and the importance of their work.
The Special Rapporteur has provided, based on widespread consultation, a set of useful, practical guidelines for lawyers defending the right of peaceful assembly. We will hear more about the Guidelines during the panel discussion. In examining the Guidelines, we should be sure to keep in mind why the work human rights lawyers do in defending peaceful assembly is so important to the protection of human rights more broadly.