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On Human Rights Day, maintain focus on protecting peaceful protest and assembly
Jeffrey T. Smith
December 10, 2013

Since 1950, December 10 has been internationally recognized as Human Rights Day, which celebrates the decision by the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), proudly proclaiming its principles and aspirations as the "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." While the human rights landscape has significantly improved since that time as a result, for example, of large-scale decolonization, widespread acceptance of economic rights as fundamental to human dignity, and measures to better protect marginalized communities much work remains to be done. That is why this year's theme, "Working for Your Rights," which places an emphasis on identifying future challenges that inevitably lie ahead, is both apt and timely.

While human rights defenders and civil society activists are more equipped than ever before with the essential tools to confront repression, so too are autocratic regimes savvier and better positioned to block their efforts. No longer relying on brute force alone, autocrats in nations such as Zimbabwe, Egypt, Uganda, and Morocco are enacting legal measures to stifle peaceful protest and freedom of assembly, often under the dubious guise of public safety. While strictly enforcing the "rule of law" in these contexts may provide a veil of legitimacy to the outside world, those who work on behalf of and are genuinely guided by democratic principles know better than to stand down and accept the unacceptable.

Recognizing that these fundamental rights stand at the vanguard of broader protection for civic activists and ordinary citizens alike, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) worked closely with our partners, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), to file a landmark petition before the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR), seeking to protect the right to engage in peaceful demonstrations. WOZA's leaders have been routinely beaten, detained, and arrested more than 50 times over the course of the past decade; to date, not once have they been convicted of committing an actual crime. Last month, the ACHPR accepted the case filed on behalf of WOZA, marking the first time that Africa's leading human rights body will hear a case that directly addresses the right to peaceful protest. This important development at the ACHPR represents a truly significant step towards strengthening democracy not only in Zimbabwe, but across the continent, including in neighboring Zambia where major democratic backsliding is evident.

The impact of the ultimate ACHPR judgment could prove decisive in countries like Egypt, where a new protest law has been discussed by the cabinet and now only awaits presidential approval. The controversial law allows security forces to use deadly force to disperse crowds and imposes a highly restrictive government permission requirement in order for citizens to gather in public, violating a host of international human rights standards, including those enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Charter) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The right to peaceful assembly is also under threat in Uganda, as the Public Order Management Act (POMA), signed into law in September of this year, places undue burdens on civil society and outlaws public demonstrations around "democratic institutions," including parliament and the courts. POMA also criminalizes assembly organizers and provides no protection to the rights of media to both attend and report on public demonstrations. Of particular concern are the negative effects this law could potentially have on Uganda's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) community, members of which are already specifically targeted for abuse and routinely suffer human rights violations.

Perhaps the most egregious example of continued rights violations as it pertains to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest has occurred in Western Sahara, where systematic violations against the Sahrawi people by Moroccan security forces have continued for decades. Moroccan authorities have violently dispersed Sahrawi protests on numerous occasions, many of which result in arbitrary detention, verified reports of torture, and a mounting death toll comprised of both innocent civilians and human rights defenders.

The immense challenges to protecting the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of assembly, throughout Africa and elsewhere, will no doubt remain. However, this year's commemoration of Human Rights Day should remind each of us that while the power of autocrats and dictatorships are both real and present, brave activists the world over are necessarily empowered with the wherewithal and persistence to outlast our common adversaries. As the late Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela once said, "To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity." Indeed, it is that challenge which will continue to spur us on and motivate each of us on this day, and successive others, to continue working for our shared human rights.

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