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The past year has seen a seemingly massive surge in protests globally. All around the world we have witnessed a huge wave of people taking to the streets to exercise their right to protest and demand change from those in power. These protests are diverse, multi-faceted, and re-orienting the political, economic and social orders that sustain them – requiring U.S. policy to be equally as innovative and focused on the principles that sustain them.
Peaceful protesting is not a crime, it is a human right. The way governments have by and large chosen to respond to these protests has been disproportionate, unwarranted and rife with violations of human rights standards.
Allegations of government corruption have helped to spark massive waves of protests across Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, and Chile.
In Lebanon, one of the overwhelming drivers of the calls for the government’s resignation was allegations of corruption and failure to provide basic economic needs. The Lebanese army and security forces shot at unarmed crowds protesting government negligence following an August 4 explosion in the port area of Beirut which killed at least 220.
People took to the streets in several cities in the west of Libya in August to protest against deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. At least six peaceful protesters were abducted, and several others were wounded after armed men fired live rounds to disperse a demonstration in Tripoli on August 23.
In September 2019 thousands of people took part in demonstrations across Egypt. The protests were triggered by a series of viral videos claiming high-level corruption in the military.
COST OF LIVING
Where corruption is a concern, so, too, is the cost of living. In Chile, demonstrations were kicked off by students after the government announced a hike in transport fares in October 2019. Chilean security forces deliberately injured protesters to discourage dissent, killing at least four people and seriously wounding thousands more. Since then, the protests have snowballed to cover the vast number of government policies that have fueled economic injustice and jeopardized the rights of people across Chile.
People’s legitimate concerns over the increasing cost of living have been made worse by the fact that many governments are also imposing harsh economic austerity measures, such as in Egypt and Ecuador.
On August 9, Belarus held presidential elections. The official results, which awarded an 80% victory and a sixth term to the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko, were condemned as fabricated by the U.S. Department of State, the European Union, and numerous activists across Belarus. Activists and civil society took to the streets across Belarus in unprecedented numbers; over 300,000 people came out in the capital city Minsk. Amnesty International researchers on the ground have uncovered a widespread and sadistic campaign of torture launched by authorities in Belarus against peaceful protesters in their custody.
Hong Kong has been home to arguably one of the most sustained protests linked to political freedoms in recent years. The demonstrations, which started in April 2019 against a proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, have recently resumed to protest a draconian new national security law rushed through the Chinese legislature in June. An Amnesty International investigation has documented an alarming pattern of the Hong Kong police deploying reckless and indiscriminate tactics against demonstrators, as well as evidence of torture and other ill-treatment in detention.
Algeria’s Hirak movement continued to organize protests calling for radical political reform. Security forces responded by arresting peaceful activists and journalists covering the demonstrations.
Protests demanding political reform also took place in Mali, where activists organized demonstrations against poor governance and electoral fraud in July 2020. They were brutally repressed by the security forces across Bamako, the capital, resulting in the deaths of at least 11 protesters and bystanders, and dozens being injured.
USE OF TEAR GAS
A common thread throughout these protests has been the harsh response from governments, which in many instances has involved mass violations of human rights. In particular, the shadowy and poorly regulated global trade of tear gas is fueling police human rights violations against peaceful protesters on a global scale.
Amnesty International has documented the misuse of tear gas against protesters across the world. For instance, tear gas has been fired through the windshield of a passenger car, inside a school bus, at a funeral procession, inside hospitals, residential buildings, metros, and shopping malls. Security forces have also fired canisters directly at individuals, leading to severe injuries and fatalities. These actions amount to an excessive use of force and in some instances, may amount to torture, violating protesters’ rights to peaceful assembly.
- The importance of the right to freedom of assembly has been highlighted time and time again throughout U.S. history, whether through the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, or the labor movement. And while the U.S. is far from perfect, we can and must inspire others throughout the world.
- Whether you are protesting against police brutality in Hong Kong or economic inequality in Chile, you have a right to have your voices heard, and a right to protest and demand a better world.
- The U.S. will no longer sit on the sidelines – we will support those protesting for justice, equality and human rights, and pressure governments to respect human rights. The world and everyone in it will be better for it.
- The U.S. should host a global forum at the State Department or the United Nations which includes civil society leaders to reaffirm the human rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of association.
- The U.S. should establish a foreign assistance fund that imposes costs for violations of the rights to peaceful association and assembly. This package would include funding for documentation of human rights violations during the response to protests.
- The incoming Administration should institute a whole-of-government strategy review of its policy on freedom of association and assembly which establishes a review board to respond as crises break out and to ongoing protests. This should culminate in a high-level Presidential speech that emphasizes the important role the U.S. can and should play in promoting and protecting the rights to freedom of association and assembly.
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