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Freedom to assemble

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United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur Clément Nyaletsossi Voule will visit Sri Lanka today to assess rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the country. Since the election of this Government in 2015 one positive thing is that the space for assembly has expanded and even though the public may feel that has also come with inconvenience it is an important fundamental human right. 

This fundamental human right is recognised by several documents, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and by most national constitutions around the world.

In democratic societies, free assembly is one of the instruments by which people can bring about social change. While it can be difficult and chaotic to face the traffic caused by rallies they are nonetheless an important part of a democratic system. Cracking down in organisers and participants is in fact one of the biggest red flags that democratic space is on the decline.   

Society benefits from letting free assemblies take place in crucial ways. Freedom of assembly is an important means through which the public can express their views to their leaders and to other members of society. It promotes public discourse and diversity, and it is also a proper tool to achieve changes in society.

States may not limit freedom of assembly just because the organisers want to express ideas that are not popular, or because those in power think that the ideas at hand would go against the interests of society in the long run. Of course, when public safety is endangered, states may legitimately break up a demonstration. When, for example, a demonstration that started peacefully becomes violent, such as when people set cars on fire or break into shops, the police may legitimately use force to break up the crowd, thereby protecting the property and physical well being of other citizens. But the force the state employs in such cases should never exceed the minimal force needed to restore normalcy.

Because holding a march requires relatively fewer resources compared to other ways of efficiently communicating a message, it is frequently used by the powerless who cannot otherwise make their voice heard. Living in a democracy means remembering how important it is that all citizens have a say in what we do and how we do it. When people are denied this right to speak up, they are denied their dignity. This is why freedom of assembly has been categorized as a fundamental right. 

In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, there are many instances when issues have to be highlighted to the Government and other stakeholders. There are other causes that deserve attention but get elbowed out. Some of these protests could also go in a racist and xenophobic direction, which is why the State has to decide when it can step in to limit demonstrations. But even though no rights are absolute or infinite having them remains an integral part of a democracy.    


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