Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring - Chapter XV: Monitoring Demonstrations and Public Meetings



A. Introduction

B. International standards for free assembly, association, and expression

C. Standards for use of force by law enforcement officials

D. Challenges in monitoring demonstrations

1. Purpose of monitoring demonstrations

2. Before the demonstration

3. During the demonstration

4. After the demonstration

A. Introduction

Monitoring demonstrations can be a rather common task of HROs, especially in periods of political and electoral campaigns in the country of operation. This Chapter covers the international human rights standards the respect of which HROs seek to ensure in performing this specific function, and a number of practical and technical aspects which need to be kept in mind to professionally and effectively monitor demonstrations.

B. International standards for free assembly, association, and expression

1. As discussed earlier in Chapter III "Applicable International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: the framework", the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association are guaranteed by international human rights law. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." Article 21 of the Civil and Political Covenant secures the right to peaceful assembly and Article 22 protects freedom of association. Article 11(1) of the European Convention declares, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others . . .." In addition, Articles 15 and 16 of the American Convention guarantee the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

2. The Civil and Political Covenant, the European Convention, and the American Convention provide that States may impose certain lawful restrictions on the exercise of freedom of association. The limiting language found in the two regional conventions is similar to Article 22(2) of the Civil and Political Covenant: "No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of rights and freedoms of others."


3. The rights of freedom of association and assembly are also set forth in the African (Banjul) Charter, but in a slightly different manner. Article 10(1) states, "Every individual shall have the right to freedom of association provided that he abides by the law." Article 11 provides, "Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others."

4. While all international and regional human rights conventions grant individuals the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, they allow States to impose certain permissible restrictions on those rights. European jurisprudence, however, suggests that European States (and probably other States with similar human rights treaty obligations) may have an obligation to take further steps to guarantee those rights. In Platform 'Ärzte für das Leben' v. Austria (Judgement of 21 June 1988 (No. 139), 13 E.H.R.R. 204), the European Court of Human Rights noted that,

A demonstration may annoy or give offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims that it is seeking to promote. The participants must, however, be able to hold the demonstration without having to fear that they will be subject to physical violence by their opponents; such a fear would be liable to deter associations or other groups supporting common ideas or interests from openly expressing their opinions on highly controversial issues affecting the community. In a democracy the right to counter-demonstrate cannot extend to inhibiting the exercise of the right to demonstrate.

Genuine, effective freedom of peaceful assembly cannot, therefore, be reduced to a mere duty on the part of the State not to interfere: a purely negative conception would not be compatible with the object and purpose of Article 11 [of the European Convention]. . . . Article 11 sometimes requires positive measures to be taken, even in the sphere of relations between individuals, if need be.

See also Ezelin v. France, Judgement of 26 April 1991 (No. 202), 14 E.H.R.R. 362 and Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, adopted at a conference convened by Article 19 on October 1, 1995.

5. The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental right that is necessary for the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through the media and regardless of frontiers." The right to freedom of expression is also set forth in Article 19 of the Civil and Political Covenant, Article 9 of the African (Banjul) Charter, Article 13 of the American Convention, and Article 10 of the European Convention. For a more detailed discussion of freedom of expression, see Chapter III "Applicable International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law: the framework" of this Manual and The Article 19 Freedom of Expression Manual (1993).

C. Standards for use of force by law enforcement officials

6. Generally, both local and national authorities have the power to control demonstrations in the interest of restoring public order. In some countries (including continental Europe, Japan, and the United States), police forces have specialized para-military riot control squads trained to handle demonstrations. (1)

7. Some international standards for the use of force by law enforcement officials are set forth in the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, adopted by General Assembly resolution 34/169 of 17 December 1979. Pursuant to Article 2 of the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, "In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons." Article 3 states that, "Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty. Commentary (b) to Article 3 discusses the proportionality principle and proclaims, "In no case should this provision be interpreted to authorize the use of force which is disproportionate to the legitimate objective to be achieved."

8. Principle 12 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, 27 August to 7 September 1990) states,

"As everyone is allowed to participate in lawful and peaceful assemblies, in accordance with the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Governments and law enforcement agencies and officials shall recognize that force and firearms may be used only in accordance with principles 13 and 14."

9. Pursuant to Principle 13, "In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary."

10. Principle 14 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides, "In the dispersal of violent assemblies, law enforcement officials may use firearms only when less dangerous means are not practicable and only to the minimum extent necessary. Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms in such cases, except under conditions stipulated in principle 9." (2) For more detailed and very pertinent standards on the use of force by law enforcement officials, see Chapter III. C. 3 "Limits on the use of force to prevent arbitrary executions".

D. Challenges in monitoring demonstrations

1. Purpose of monitoring demonstrations

11. Monitoring demonstrations may be one of the most difficult tasks for HROs. The goal of the HRO is to monitor respect for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. Yet the role of the HRO may be complicated by the actions of the demonstrating crowd and law enforcement officials.

12. The HROs' presence is intended to insure freedom of expression and assembly. It is the officers' duty to verify that the authorities are not interfering with freedom of assembly and peaceful association. Also, assemblies are a common means of expressing opposition to human rights abuses and thus can be an important step towards improving the situation. (3) In any case, the presence of HROs is not affected by the legality or illegality of the demonstration or meeting under national or local law, or whether the authorities have been notified. Hence, HROs should not express any opinion on the legality or illegality of demonstrations under national or local law. In addition, HROs should neither encourage nor discourage people who express their intention or desire to hold a meeting or to form a peaceful demonstration. HROs are only authorized to observe whether rights are respected and to detect violations. HROs should never participate in or associate themselves with demonstrations.

13. Unfortunately, past experience has shown that in some situations, the mere presence of UN HROs may be enough to spark a spontaneous demonstration. HROs need to be cognizant of the fact that the UN insignia on clothing and vehicles may actually create a demonstration. Demonstrators may gather in the belief that the UN symbol offers protection and authorizes an assembly. HROs may, therefore, decide to observe a particular demonstration from a distance. In any event, HROs should be constantly aware of their location; they should have an escape plan in case the crowd overcomes or attempts to surround them.

2. Before the demonstration

14. Upon receipt of information that a demonstration is being organized, the HROs should be available to proceed to wherever the demonstration is taking place -- whether it is in a public place or on private property.


15. If possible, the HRO should establish contact in advance with the organizers and collect information about the scenario, including: the site, planned activities, route, number of participants, duration, goals, expected response of the authorities, and alternative courses of action.

16. The HROs should explain to the organizers that the officers and their vehicles will stay at a prudent and sufficient distance from the demonstration. If possible, HROs should request that the organizers advise demonstrators to avoid approaching the field operation vehicles and to avoid behaviour that could involve the officers in the demonstration, and impede them from carrying out their task.

17. During the days preceding the demonstration, HROs should acquaint themselves with the route planned by the organizers. Familiarity with the route will assist the HROs in identifying possible difficulties, dangers, and escape routes. In addition, officers can identify the best radio frequency or means of communication for the area.

18. Such a preliminary visit to scout the route should, however, be carried out with the utmost prudence and discretion. It should not be carried out on the day of the demonstration. Further, to avoid revealing the proposed route, the preliminary visit should include other streets and areas of the town. For the same reason, HROs should avoid any conversation, sign, or indication that might enable anyone to identify the route. Further, nothing should be communicated to the civilian or military authorities about the demonstration or the HROs' plans in regard to the demonstration, except in regard to the matters mentioned in para. 16 above.


19. When studying the route during the preliminary visit, the HRO should give the driver specific instructions to take into consideration all possible scenarios for the demonstration, the approach of the UN officers, and escape routes. If at all possible, driver(s) who are well acquainted with the area should be used.

3. During the demonstration

20. On the day of the demonstration, HROs must avoid participating or being seen to participate in any way. They must make every effort to be viewed as observers, and not as demonstrators. The HROs must avoid encouraging the demonstration with their presence. They must take actions that discourage the demonstrators from taking risks which could have uncontrollable consequences. For example, HROs should not photograph or video tape demonstrations. The use of a camera could lead some people to "act for the camera".

21. The HROs should keep a prudent and sufficient distance between themselves and the demonstrators, as well as between themselves and the military and/or the police. The observers should be both visible and discreet. Too much exposure could be perceived as participation, and encouragement, or could aggravate the situation. Too little visibility, however, would hinder monitoring and limit any potential deterrence of repression.

22. If the HROs risk serious danger, they should leave the scene and take a position outside the danger zone. In all cases, officers should avoid remaining in the same place; they should attempt to maintain a certain mobility. If possible, officers should use several vehicles and park them at different points near the demonstration route.

23. HROs should be aware of or inquire as to the identity of the police chief or of the responsible authority, so that they know who to approach about difficulties and should later include this information in the report.

24. HROs should discuss in advance and decide whether it would be prudent to park a vehicle or station a UN officer near the barracks or jail in order to observe the arrival of any arrested demonstrators. This suggestion is optional because: (1) parking near the barracks/jail could be considered as provocative by the authorities and could trigger reprisals; (2) this observation post is not necessarily the best as there is no way to verify that the people brought in were arrested during the demonstration; and (3) implementing this suggestion could be particularly difficult in a locality where there are many potential places of detention.

25. If arrests take place during or after a demonstration, it is essential to try to obtain the name(s) of persons arrested, and possibly the names of witnesses to the arrest. In order to do so, the HRO should proceed cautiously and avoid any behaviour or language likely to exacerbate an already tense situation. HROs should visit detention centres where the arrested persons have or might have been brought. If HROs are refused entry to detention centres, they should neither impose themselves nor remain outside waiting for admission. See Chapter IX "Visits to Persons in Detention".

26. HROs should keep frequent and regular radio contact with the operational base. Officers should use coded messages and avoid the use of important words of which the sense can easily be understood by the authorities or the demonstrators who may overhear the radio. Further, if possible, the officers should verify that they are not being taped.

4. After the demonstration

27. Following the demonstration, the HROs who attended the demonstration should write a detailed report. The written report should be as precise as possible and include the following information:

28. Any additional information on the demonstration and its effects which reaches the HROs in the days following the demonstration should also be included in follow-up reports.

29. Special attention should be devoted to cases of persons arrested, beaten, ill-treated, etc., during a demonstration. The HROs should visit them where they have been taken: hospital, detention centre, etc. The same rules apply to the follow-up of cases in which persons are hospitalized or detained after a demonstration as apply to inquiries and reports about individual cases (see Chapter VIII "Interviewing"). In regard to detained persons, the rules concerning prompt visits to prisons to see individual prisoners (see Chapter IX "Visits to Persons in Detention") should be followed.



1. Robert Reiner, Forces of Disorder: How the Police Control "Riots", 52 New Society 914, 951 (1980).

2. Principle 9 states that, "Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life."

3. See Diane Paul, Beyond Monitoring and Reporting, Strategies for the Field-level Protection of Civilians Under Threat (1996).


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