A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT
The Article 20 Network is an organization with a unique and singular focus. We are concerned with the defense and advancement of one fundamental human right: The right of people to gather peacefully in a public forum to express a shared point of view—the freedom of assembly.
Formal recognition of this right has its origins in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but freedom of assembly is a globally accepted principle. It was enshrined in 1948 in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which starts, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly..."
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) offers a useful definition of assembly in their Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly:
“assembly means the intentional and temporary presence of a number of individuals in a public place for a common expressive purpose.”
Freedom of assembly is recognized as a basic human right by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and many other human rights instruments. The universality of this right is also reflected in its guarantee by the constitutions of myriad sovereign nations around the world.
In a participatory democracy, free assembly is one of many ways that people can affect change. In other countries, it is all they have. For some groups, holding assembly is a strategic Plan B when the other mechanisms of influence fail. For the voiceless and disenfranchised, it is all they have.
Scholar and author John Inazu calls the Freedom of Assembly “liberty’s refuge”. Promoting pluralism and guarding the integrity of civil society, the Freedom of Assembly is the great insurance plan of humanity. Be it students rallying for their university to divest from fossil fuels, or ethnic minorities standing up for a self-determination referendum, all have a chance to achieve the impossible because the human right to Freedom of Assembly is inalienable.
ASSEMBLY IN PRACTICE AND IN CRISIS
People are vigorously exercising the right to free assembly this century. Public demonstrations are all around us. You may have been to one recently or know someone who has. If you’ve had the impression that people are taking the streets more often, you aren’t mistaken.
The rate of nonviolent public demonstrations around the world has doubled since 2000. Assemblies are not only happening more frequently, but also growing in size. Between 2006 and 2013, there were 37 protests with 1 million or more people, some of the largest gatherings of humans in history.
Yet the 21st century has also witnessed a steady assault on the practice of assembly and a contraction in how states interpret their obligation to protect this form of expression. The right of individuals to peacefully come together in a public space to promote an idea is endangered everywhere, democracies and dictatorships alike.
Threats to assembly take many forms. Some are administrative barriers: “free speech zones” (a new concept which both confuses and diminishes two distinct human rights—assembly and speech), permits and fees, and overzealous restrictions on the times and places people may gather. Other dangers to practitioners of assembly are more direct: rubber bullets, pepper spray, mass arrests, and even murder.
In an age when people are collectively turning to alternative methods of affecting change, the protection and cultivation of the human right to Freedom of Assembly has never been more vital to humanity.
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