Civil society leaders from across the Americas face an array of challenges in exercising their rights to freedom of association and assembly. Last week, these leaders met with UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai and Lilly Ching-Soto of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to explore opportunities for collaboration in advancing these rights. The October 29, 2014 round table was hosted by ICNL.
Civil society representatives presented the latest developments related to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association in eight countries – particularly in the context of extractive industries, which is the theme of the Special Rapporteur’s upcoming report. They revealed common challenges in shrinking civic space:
- Laws impose barriers to organizing peaceful assembles. In Mexico, for example, laws require organizers to present justifications for their protests. In Venezuela, a recent court decision upheld a requirement that protest organizers obtain prior authorization. Peru, among several countries, has banned all social protests in large areas declared to be “security zones.” Through legislation and practice, Venezuela and other States are militarizing immense tracts of indigenous territories where oil, gas, and other resources are extracted, often by State-owned companies.
- Across the region, citizens are expressing their discontent with natural resource exploitation policies through peaceful protest. Many States, including Colombia and Argentina, are responding with mass arrests of protesters on charges of terrorism, kidnapping, and illegal occupation of public space. Presenters contended that in many criminal cases, prosecutors simply invent evidence.
- Participants in public protests often face violent repression, both in the streets and while in custody. In Paraguay, peasant and indigenous organizations have lost many leaders to extrajudicial executions and disappearances, allegedly without anyone held accountable for orchestrating the attacks. In Peru, twenty-five laws reportedly grant immunity to public security officers whose actions lead to protesters’ deaths.
- New laws regulating civil society organizations in Bolivia and Ecuador establish broad grounds for shutting down organizations. Just as troubling to the civil society representatives is the fact that the laws require that all organizations register with the State – even informal associations and indigenous communities that have existed for hundreds of years. A year after filing suit, Ecuadoran civil society litigants still have no reply to their challenge that the law is unconstitutional.
Mr. Kiai and Ms. Ching-Soto of the IACHR invited civil society collaboration, in particular, by submitting reports or updates to www.freeassembly.net and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively. Mr. Kiai specifically requested information related to freedoms of peaceful association and assembly in the context of extractive industries as well as access to resources. He noted that he hopes to support litigation in the region through amicus briefs or as an expert witness in order to strengthen domestic adoption of international legal standards on CSO rights. Finally, Mr. Kiai also announced his plans to collaborate with other UN Special Rapporteurs to develop best practices for states responding to public protests.