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UN Human Rights Committee adopts landmark General Comment on the right of peaceful assembly

ECNL welcomes the adopted of the first ever General Comment No. 37 on Article 21, ICCPR (Right of Peaceful Assembly).  The Comment was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Committee during its 129th session held on 29 June-24 July.

UN Human Rights Committee general comments on ICCPR articles are relevant and authoritative standard-setting interpretations on Member States’ positive obligations towards safeguarding fundamental rights and freedoms.

The General Comment no. 37 is the first general comment by the Human Rights Committee regarding assembly rights and it couldn’t have been more timely and momentous, when the right of peaceful assembly is under increased pressure in countries throughout the world. Furthermore, we truly appreciate the dedication and commitment by the Committee members to ensure that the Comment addresses most critical issues faced by individuals who assemble and protest. It therefore responds to current and emerging issues and incorporates safeguards for this freedom for the years to come ” said Francesca Fanucci, ECNL’s Senior Legal Advisor.

The final text adopted by the Committee takes stock of all the detailed analysis that ECNL, together with our partner CSOs from the countries across the world and experts provided and facilitated in the last two years. We commend in particular:

1. The inclusion of digitally-mediated physical assemblies as well as assemblies entirely held in the online space in the protection of Article 21, ICCPR; this is of particular importance especially now when most of our activity is moving online because of the lockdowns related to the pandemic;

2. The acknowledgment that even assemblies that do not have a primarily expressive purpose are protected by Article 21, ICCPR. This means that assemblies whose function is primarily of social and relational values, e.g. people assembling for commemorative reasons or to play games or take part in other collective recreational activities are now protected under this right;

3. The addition of private meetings to the non-exhaustive list of assemblies protected by the right. This will ensure that not only assemblies held in public places (e.g., street protests) or in privately-owned but publicly accessible spaces (e.g., gatherings in shopping malls), but also meetings held in enclosed spaces (e.g., in private homes to discuss and plan public demonstrations) enjoy the same protection granted by Article 21, even though they should not be subject to the same type of obligations (e.g., notification regimes) due to the nature of their location.

“We are grateful that the Committee decided to prioritise the work on this Comment in 2018, and that it developed the document through a highly participatory process and involvement of Member States, UN Special Procedures, academics and civil society. A true example of how similar UN documents should be developed” said Vanja Skoric, Program Director of ECNL.

ECNL successfully advocated for the Human Rights Committee to undertake the adoption of a general comment on Article 21, ICCPR and supported its drafting process. In  collaboration with dr. Michael Hamilton, we prepared compilation of key principles in the Committee’s freedom of assembly jurisprudence (see: Towards a General Comment on Article 21)  and a Freedom of Assembly Repository  that informed the work on the Comment.  ECNL also facilitated a loose coordination group with international CSOs and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association for the responses to the Human Rights Committee consultations around the General Comment, so that our interventions and arguments were mutually helpful and complementary.  ECNL, in collaboration with its alliance partner ICNL and partners from the Civic Space Initiative, organized several regional consultations in Europe, MENA, Latin America, South Africa and Asia.   In December 2019, ECNL convened an expert workshop together with University of East Anglia and the Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR) at the University of Cambridge focusing on the potential for exercising the right to freedom of assembly online so that the premises for online assemblies’ effective and meaningful protection are laid out.

We at ECNL will continue working towards enhancing the protection and promotion of the freedom of assembly and addressing emerging trends that challenge or amplify our rights and freedoms. In particular, we will ensure the new General Comment is distributed and understood widely to assist activists and CSOs in their national level efforts.

We are currently preparing a more detailed analysis of the text.  For more information on ECNL’s work on the General Comment no.37 on Article 21, ICCPR please visit our website here.