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Protecting the right to protest

  • Published at 06:02 pm August 30th, 2018
What are our legal rights?
What are our legal rights? Photo: BIGSTOCK

The right to protest and peaceful assembly is essential for progress

Protests play an important part in society. Historically, protests have often inspired positive social change and improved the upholding of human rights, as they continue to help define and protect civic space in all parts of the world. This is especially true for those whose interests are otherwise poorly represented or marginalized. 

Recently, Bangladesh witnessed thousands of students protesting Dhaka’s road conditions, stopping the flow of traffic and checking vehicles and drivers in an effort to ensure road safety. With the slogan “We want justice,” the students called for stricter enforcement of traffic laws. A recent BBC report stated that about 25 students had been injured in clashes. The report also stated that it was not clear who attacked them, but local media blamed a student group linked to the ruling party. 

Amid reports of sexual assaults in the streets, a female reporter alleged on social media that she had been molested while trying to film the clashes.

It is widely acknowledged that protests engage both freedom of expression and assembly. Article 37 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh stipulates that “every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms … ” The article protects the rights of Bangladeshis to protest by holding meetings and demonstrations with other people.

However, it should also be acknowledged that under the constitution, the right to assembly is not an absolute right as it is “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order and public health.”

It also imposes strict conditions on state authorities to demonstrate that their action is lawful, necessary, and proportionate.

An action is “proportionate” as long as “it is appropriate and no more than necessary to address the issue concerned.”

Hence, with reference to the attack on the students, CR Abrar, professor of international relations at the University of Dhaka, said, by preventing a demonstration from going ahead, taking steps in advance of a demonstration to disrupt it, halting a demonstration, and by storing personal information on people because of their involvement in a demonstration, the state authorities unduly interfered with citizens’ right to protest.

He further added that in a democracy, the right to peaceful assembly cannot be impeded simply because the protesters may hold a view contrary to those who are in control of the state.

This right to assembly is coupled with the right to freedom of expression. The right to protest involves the exercise of numerous fundamental human rights, and is essential for securing all human rights -- and protests represent a progressive interpretation of international human rights standards.

These principles also acknowledge the enduring applicability of the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in May 1984 by a group of experts), and Use of Force: Guidelines for Implementation of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (issued by Amnesty International in August 2015).

The principles are intended to be used by civil society organizations, activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, judges, elected representatives, public officials, and other stakeholders in their efforts to strengthen the protection of the right to protest locally, regionally, and globally.

Hence, we expect that the students -- the future leaders of this country -- who are protesting in demand for stricter enforcement of traffic laws, will not see failure and they will have their demands fulfilled very soon. 

Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed is Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and Research Assistant (Law), Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA).