I have the honour to speak on behalf of the European Union.
The right of peaceful assembly has been recognized for over 70 years. And for much longer peaceful assemblies have been exercised by women and men of all backgrounds to fight authoritarianism, discrimination, and injustice. Frequently, civic protests are an indicator of systematic violations and abuses of human rights.
The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The General comment No. 37 adopted last year by the Human Rights Committee presents a detailed account of the scope of this right, of the obligations of States, and duties and powers of law enforcement agencies.
And yet, the situation on the ground is unsettling. Peaceful assemblies are often dispersed by force and peaceful protestors criminalized. We still need to reiterate loud and clear that peaceful protests are not a crime. Peaceful protesters must be protected, not muzzled, attacked and criminalized.
Let me briefly address two major trends affecting peaceful assemblies: the COVID-19 crisis and new technologies.
The pandemic must not be used as a pretext to put undue restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly. All exceptional restrictions must be strictly necessary, proportionate, non-discriminatory, subject to regular scrutiny and time bound. Post-pandemic recovery is an opportunity: “Building back better” is “building back” with human rights up front.
New technologies are major enablers of human rights. Social media have enormous public mobilization potential and could expose, in real time, violations of human rights, including during peaceful assemblies. However, at the same time, mass surveillance or various forms of cyber-harassment have a chilling effect on the exercise of this right. Maximizing the benefits and addressing challenges of digital technologies is one of the priorities of the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.
In conclusion, I wish to ask the panellists how to best tackle persistent government crackdown on peaceful protesters, exemplified by Belarus since the Presidential elections last year?