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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Pantazi

The Right to Protest: The Need for Human Rights Compliance in Pro-Palestine Protests Around the World

Updated: Jun 30



The violations of international law witnessed in Gaza following Israel's attack in October of 2023 have sparked global discussion regarding the conduct tolerated from universities affiliated with Israeli institutions.[1] Around the world, students and faculty wanting to express their widespread disapproval of the conduct of their universities have exercised their right to protest. In response to this, pro-Palestine encampments have been met with violent response from anti-protests and police forces, endangering the human rights of the protesters.

This article aims to shed light on the human rights violations against pro-Palestine protesters worldwide. Many countries, such as the United States, Jordan and the Netherlands have ratified multiple human rights instruments safeguarding the freedom of assembly. However in today’s political climate, human rights law faces uncertainty as compliance with these instruments remains inconsistent. [2] It is important to underscore that this article does not to seek to chastise the opinions of others, but rather to emphasize the universal notion that anybody, regardless of their political affiliations, deserves to be treated in accordance with international human rights law, which many States consider integral to the international community as a whole.

 

What is the Right to Protest?

The right to protest is protected under international human rights law by different provisions in multiple legal instruments. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) protects freedom of expression (Article 19), freedom of assembly and association (Art. 20), and other rights such as the right to life (Art. 3),  freedom from torture (Art. 5), and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention (Art. 9).

Specifically, the freedom of assembly is enshrined in several international human rights instruments, such as the Art. 20 UDHR[3], Art. 21 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Art. 11 European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).[4] With this right, both temporary gatherings in public and private spaces, whether spontaneous or planned are protected, provided they are peaceful. Certain limitations, such as a balance between the freedom of movement and also national security, accompany this right, necessitating a delicate balance between various legal values.

The right has been put on display in front of various international courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the 2005 case of Izci v. Turkey. [5] In this case, a demonstration in Istanbul for women’s rights was met with unprovoked beatings and tear gas by police. Both Art. 3 (prohibition against torture) and Art. 11 (freedom of assembly and association) were discussed by the Court. It was ultimately found that the State had positive obligations to protect its citizens in this case. Similarly, in Laguna Guzmán v. Spain (2020), the ECtHR examined the same articles in the context of a peaceful protest against budgetary cuts and high unemployment.[6] Police were notified of the demonstration, however towards its end, when a group of protesters stayed against police instruction this resulted in injuries inflicted by the police. The court afterwards concluded that there was a violation of both Art. 11 and Art. 3 ECHR, due to the disproportionate use of force. [7] These cases are small examples of the precedent regarding the freedom of assembly and association.

 

How is this relevant today?

The right to protest and thus the human rights associated with it, as mentioned above, are relevant in today’s pro-Palestine protests around the world, illustrated in the United States, Jordan, and the Netherlands. These three States do not represent a consensus on the conduct of all countries and the right to protest. Although the right to protest is undermined in several other States, the US, the Netherlands and Jordan are used as examples because of their recent relevancy in the news and in public discourse.

It is necessary to remember that the freedom to assemble must also be balanced with the need for national security and public order. This makes the issue very intricate and complex. There have been instances of individuals not protesting peacefully as others have. However the intense response to peaceful protesters is what is being taken into question here. These situations are ongoing, and any future or unknown information may change the circumstances at hand.

 

United States

In the US - a country whose government actively funds the Israeli military - students throughout the nation have stepped up to protest against their university’s affiliations with Israel.[8] Many individuals sought to participate in peaceful protests but encountered violence from law enforcement or counter-protesters during their endeavors. In a country with an ugly past of police brutality, the infringement of this right has been heavily documented. [9] The US, since June 08 1992 has been bound by the ICCPR and thus Art. 21 protecting the right to assembly. It has also signed the UDHR. In its own national law, the right to assembly is also codified in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

56 years ago in the US, students at the esteemed Columbia University collected together to protest the Vietnam War. This was met by widespread violence from the national police force.[10],[11]  In May of 2024, protestors at Columbia were also met with police force, “in a way which mirrored the 1968 protests” in Columbia’s Hamilton Hall. [12] In a first-account published in the Times, Columbia students at a peaceful protest were met by police in riot gear barricading 10 blocks around the school. When visiting the Pro-palestine encampment, Salessess, a Columbia University professor “saw a place of joy, love and community that included explicit teachings on antisemitism and explicit rules against any hateful language and action”. [13] Later, in accounts published in major news outlets, beatings of students and destruction of property by police force were described.[14] Similarly at UCLA, student protests which started out peacefully were met with violent response to their demonstration. When a group of pro-Israel supporters violently responded to the encampment, police stood back and did not immediately help the pro-Palestine protestors in need of protection, as reported by the Washington Post. [15] In fact, one “witness called emergency services 11 times before police intervened”. [16] This report highlights how the US’s responsibility to safeguard its citizens’ freedom of assembly is compromised by the excessive police response observed at universities. Although the situation is ongoing, and many more details may come to light, the apparent disregard for human rights of student protesters eerily mirrors events more than 50 years ago, at protests during the Vietnam war. Since then, there have been many global progressions in human rights law, including the writing and ratification of the ICCPR, however the US’s response to major demonstrations against its military engagements has lagged behind this evolving standard.

 

Jordan

Halfway across the world in Jordan, human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International have reported widespread violations to the right to protest of Jordanian citizens and students who are publicly critical of their government’s global partnerships. [17] Jordan has ratified both the UDHR and ICCPR. Today, Jordanian authorities have been intensifying their response against pro-Palestine protests and have actively been arresting activists. In Amnesty International's report, the human rights NGO calls to “immediately release all those who have been arbitrarily detained since October 2023 over their pro-Palestine activism. The government must ensure that protesters and activists have the freedom to peacefully criticize the government’s policies towards Israel without being attacked by security forces or violently arrested”. [18] The treatment of those detained was also reportedly in violation of human rights law.[19]Although these protesters were not all university students, their experiences illustrate the widespread problem of the undermining of protester’s human rights. Freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention (Art. 9 UDHR) is reported here as violated, and the freedom of expression (Art. 19 UDHR) of activists in Jordan is severely limited, in respect to the brutal response by police forces.

 

The Netherlands [20]

In the Netherlands, a country who has also exemplified their military support for Israel students from public universities around the country are also protesting their university’s involvement with Israeli institutions. [21] These include the Utrecht University, Groningen University, and at home at the Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Not only is the Netherlands subject to Art. 21 in ICCPR since ratifying it in 1978 as well as the Art. 20 of the UDHR and Art. 11 of the ECHR, of which it has ratified as a prerequisite to joining the organization in 1949, but the right to demonstrate is also codified in national Dutch law, in Art. 9 of the Constitution.[22]It should be noted that a mayor can “restrict or even prohibit demonstrations”, however it is on a basis that is described by the University of Groningen to be “interpreted very strictly in the Netherlands, in contrast to some other European countries”. [23]

Nevertheless in 2022, Amnesty International published a report regarding the right to demonstration in the Netherlands being under pressure, and “that rules and practice in the Netherlands need to improve”.[24] Today, students of public universities in the Netherlands are faced with violence from anti-protests and instances of police brutality. This past week, disturbing videos of student beatings by the ME (riot police) with batons on the Roeterseiland campus were released on social media. Major news outlets such as NOS have also reported instances of severe beatings and student arrests.[25] As seen in the cases mentioned before the ECtHR, protesters have been met with extreme violence and intolerance from their governments, endangering their freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Art.11 ECHR). The Netherland’s failure to address these obligations has been reported by NGOs such as Amnesty International, who notably have documented multiple violations of the right before this specific context. [26]

 

The Significance of Human Rights Law

Human rights, according to the Council of Europe “establish the basic standards without which people cannot live in dignity”.[27] They are universal and inalienable, and as enshrined in the Preamble of the UDHR, the “disregard and contempt for human rights” has “outraged the conscience of mankind”. Compliance with international human rights law entails more than just adherence to legal standards - it also embodies reverence from human dignity, which serves as the cornerstone “of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. [28]

The violation of the rights associated with the right to protest, illustrated by the US, Jordan and the Netherlands represents a larger problem in human rights law relating to compliance. As countries fail to uphold their legal obligations, real-life individual citizens suffer the consequences. Moreover, inconsistency regarding states’ compliance to international human rights law not only hurts the individual citizen but also the wider international community as a whole. This cannot not be overlooked when chants of the youth go against the political affiliations of their countries and universities. As universities educate and prepare the future leaders of the world, they are faced with the option of whether or not to protect their students in their right to protest, or to blockade them using fear and violence. In the setting of higher education, which actively promotes critical thinking and academic growth, international law students are urged in their courses to do their own research, to think critically and to analyze hypothetical situations with legal treaties, declarations and other legal instruments from their studies. Many of the textbooks given to these students describe the real-life legal and political ramifications of the events taking place in Gaza. At these same universities, their safety and basic rights are threatened as they exercise their right to protest.

At the end of the day, whether people do or do not agree with the statements made by pro-Palestine protesters, the human rights of protesters, and of all human beings, must be respected. International human rights law is a complex and yet highly significant part of the intricate web of the international community, and the ratification of human rights instruments implies the abidance to these rules by States who ratify them. [29]


 

Reference List:

[1] United Nations Security Council Resolution 2728 (2024); Tara John, 'Pro-Palestinian University Protests Take Place Worldwide' CNN (3 May 2024) <https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/03/world/pro-palestinian-university-protests-worldwide-intl-hnk/index.html> accessed 17 May 2024.

[2] Posner EA, ‘The Twilight of Human Rights Law’ (Oxford University Press 2014), p.86.

[3] It is necessary to note that even though the UDHR is not legally binding, its presence in international human rights law has been noted as significant. See Elsa Stamatopoulou, 'The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Past and Future of the United Nations’ Human Rights Efforts' (1999) 5 ILSA J Int'l & Comp L 281.

[4] See Art. 15 American Convention on Human Rights; Art. 11 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; Art. 24 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.

[5] Izci v Turkey App no 42606/05 (ECtHR, 23 July 2013).

[6] Laguna Guzmán v Spain App no 41462/17 (ECtHR, 6 October 2020).

[7] Ibid. Despite a domestic court awarding compensation to the victims, this case was ultimately dismissed due to the statute of limitations, highlighting the need for effective remedies to address such violations.

[8] Patrick Kingsley, 'U.S. Urges Israel to Reconsider Military Aid Package Amid Rising Tensions' The New York Times (New York, 24 April 2024) <https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/24/world/middleeast/israel-us-aid.html> accessed 17 May 2024.

[9] Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, et al., 'Addressing Ethical Challenges of Research and Clinical Care in Middle-Income Countries During the COVID-19 Pandemic' (2021) 65(4) International Journal of Law and Psychiatry <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9136198/> accessed 17 May 2024.

[10]Vickers GR, 'The Vietnam Antiwar Movement in Perspective' (1989) 21(2-4) Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 100-111.

[11] 'The Vietnam War: Digitized Historical Resources,' History Hub, available at <https://historyhub.history.gov/military-records/b/military-records-blog/posts/the-vietnam-war-digitized-historical-resources> (accessed 17 May 2024).

[12] Jenkins A, 'Writing Students at Columbia Say They Want the Truth. The University Is Investigating How They Got It' Time (13 May 2021) <https://time.com/6975618/columbia-protests-writing-students-truth/?linkId=423361736> accessed 17 May 2024.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Elie Mystal, 'Columbia Protests Are About More Than Police—They’re About the University’s Whole Rotten History' The Nation (6 May 2021) <https://www.thenation.com/article/society/columbia-protests-police-history/> accessed 17 May 2024; Katie Reilly, 'Student Photojournalists Are Covering Campus Protests—and Getting Their Own Education in the Process' Time (13 May 2021) <https://time.com/6975991/campus-protests-student-photojournalists-cover-story/?linkId=424114707> accessed 17 May 2024.

[15] Hannah Fry & Julia Barajas, 'UCLA Protests: Inside the Push for Action on Sexual Misconduct and Police Inaction' The Washington Post (11 May 2024) <https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2024/05/11/ucla-protests-police-inaction-fights/?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=wp_main&crl8_id=98c9bb1c-41ab-42b7-83f7-4a272029791c> accessed 17 May 2024.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Basem L. Ra'ad, 'Jordanian Students Protest Against War on Gaza and the Complicity of Their Government' The Nation (13 May 2021) <https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/jordan-university-student-protests-gaza-palestine/> accessed 17 May 2024.

[18]Amnesty International, 'Jordan: Stop Cracking Down on Pro-Gaza Protests and Release Those Charged for Exercising Their Freedoms of Assembly and Expression' (15 April 2024) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2024/04/jordan-stop-cracking-down-on-pro-gaza-protests-and-release-those-charged-for-exercising-their-freedoms-of-assembly-and-expression/> accessed 17 May 2024.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bente van Baar, 'May 11th 2024, Nakba Day National Demonstration, Amsterdam NL' (Photograph, 2024).

[21] Duncan B. Hollis, 'Summary Proceedings about the Delivery from the Netherlands of Parts for F-35 Fighter Planes to Israel: Part I' Opinio Juris (5 January 2024) <https://opiniojuris.org/2024/01/05/summary-proceedings-about-the-delivery-from-the-netherlands-of-parts-for-f-35-fighter-planes-to-israel-part-i/> accessed 17 May 2024.

[22]Council of Europe, 'Netherlands' <https://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/netherlands> accessed 17 May 2024.

[23] University of Groningen, 'Clashing Human Rights: How Far Can Protesters Go?' (20 June 2023) <https://www.rug.nl/about-ug/latest-news/news/archief2023/nieuwsberichten/botsende-mensenrechten-hoever-mogen-demonstranten-gaan?lang=en> accessed 17 May 2024.

[25] 'ME-optreden UvA Houdt Actievoerders Niet Tegen Door Tot Aan Eisen Is Voldaan'  NOS  (11 May 2024) <https://nos.nl/artikel/2520493-me-optreden-uva-houdt-actievoerders-niet-tegen-door-tot-aan-eisen-is-voldaan> accessed 17 May 2024.

[27] Council of Europe, 'Introducing Human Rights Education' <https://www.coe.int/en/web/compass/introducing-human-rights-education> accessed 17 May 2024.

[28] Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948) UNGA Res 217A (III) (UDHR).

[29] Art. 11 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (adopted 23 May 1969, entered into force 27 January 1980) 1155 UNTS 331.

 

 

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