UN expert calls for recognizing role of social movements in promoting development and justice and appropriate measures for their protection

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During the interactive dialogue of the Third CommitteeSpecial Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, highlighted the value of social movements as tools for human rights defenders and activists from marginalized communities to achieve their rights and to make their claims and concerns visible.

Despite the vital role that social movements have played and continue to play, individuals who participate in these movements face many challenges and restrictions, in violation of many human rights obligations, in particular the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The report highlights the multiple forms of restrictions imposed by state authorities, including the denial of the freedom to exercise unregistered associations, the criminalization and penalization of movements through excessively broad and vague legislation as well as than general bans and arbitrary and violent dispersals. Leaders and advocates of social movements, including members of marginalized and indigenous communities, land rights defenders and human rights defenders, are increasingly labeled as national security threats, followed by heavy criminal charges and forced exile.

In light of these restrictions on social movements, the report provides targeted recommendations to multiple stakeholders, including states, international organizations, civil society, legal service providers, the private sector, technology companies, donors and the United Nations. These recommendations include the adoption of laws protecting human rights defenders that help protect and enable the progressive engagement of social movements, refraining from any form of attack, prosecution and detention of members of social movements. on the basis of their work in favor of rights, supporting defenders and activists, in particular by setting up emergency communication channels.

In the dialogue that followed the Special Rapporteur’s presentation, several States welcomed the report and recalled the importance of social movements in safeguarding democratic societies. Switzerland, acknowledging the historic role of social movements in achieving important social advances, highlighted the misuse of surveillance technology against peaceful protesters, which potentially discourages any effort for social change. Several other states also welcomed Voule’s report and provided insight into the use of force by other state actors to restrict the rights and freedoms of peaceful protesters. The Czech Republic recommended that States reassess their anti-terrorism and anti-corruption legislation, which is often used to harass and threaten defenders who take part in social movements. The United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have drawn attention to emergency measures, pandemic and non-pandemic, which are accompanied by serious human rights violations by long-term restrictions of the civil space, arbitrary dispersals and the use of lethal force. Lithuania also highlighted the harassment and detention of journalists covering the protests.

Social movements play a key role in society by promoting social change. By promoting democratic participation and responsiveness, they support democracies. “We welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur recognizing the value of social movements in moving towards just and equal societies, denouncing the impact of restrictions on the human rights of defenders, and the holistic and targeted recommendations to protect the rights of defenders participating in social movements. We sincerely urge state and non-state actors to implement these recommendations,” said Maithili Pai of ISHR.

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