Right to protest and civic freedoms

by Josef Benedict | Published: 00:00, Jun 16,2020


OVER the last two weeks, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the world, demonstrating in support of US protests against police brutality. The rolling, global protests reflect rising anger over police treatment of ethnic minorities, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white officer detaining him knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes with fellow officers beside him.

In the United Kingdom, thousand protesters marched past the US Embassy, over the weekend blocking traffic and holding placards. In several Australian cities, rallies were held, with 10,000 people wearing masks and holding ‘Black Lives Matter’ placards. Many wrapped themselves in indigenous flags, calling for an end to police mistreatment of indigenous Australians. In Tokyo, marchers protested against what they said was police mistreatment of a Kurdish man who says he was stopped while driving and shoved to the ground.

The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental freedom and key pillar for civic space. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance. They will also be able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects the right to protest.

However, for many Bangladeshis going out on to the street to protest can be a terrifying experience. You could end being arbitrarily arrested, beaten up, face rubber bullets and tear gas. You could also be ill-treated by police and even prosecuted for organising or participating in a peaceful protest. Even after the protests end, you could face intimidation and surveillance.

This is what students groups in Bangladesh faced two years ago. In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

However, instead of engaging meaningfully with the protest leaders, the response to both movements were characterised by excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the peaceful demonstrations with hundreds of protesters injured.

Further, unidentified armed individuals — associated with ruling party, the Awami League — attacked students with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. According to witnesses, the police did not stop those assaulting the road safety movement activists.

Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names. Some reported facing torture and ill-treatment in detention. In one case, an activist arrested in July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. ‘They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,’ he said. ‘I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.’

Two years on from these protests, a new report ‘Crushing Student Protests,’ by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights shows there has yet to be any accountability for the violations suffered by the student protesters many who have been traumatised by the arrests and attacks.

Even worse, long after the protests ended many student activists, their friends and family members have reported that they continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment. This illustrates how the repression in Bangladesh extends way beyond periods of detention, effectively creating a climate of fear and silencing future dissent.

The crackdown on protests and repressive environment have created a chilling effect for human rights defenders and activists, forcing many to selfcensor or to move their criticism online. Even in this space, critics have been targeted in recent years. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, criminalises many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. Human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged for speaking up.

Further, there has been persistent censorship under the current government which has blocked numerous news portals and websites critical of the state. Due to this all this, the state of civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

As a country which has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — which means Bangladesh has an international obligation to respect and protect freedom expression — it cannot carry on in this manner and must course correct.

The authorities must review and repeal all restrictive laws and end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals. It must also review the regulations of the police in handling protests and update existing human rights training for police to foster the more consistent application of international human rights standards during protests, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms.

Finally, the government needs to ensure that when protesters face excessive force that there are impartial, independent and efficient investigations and those responsible must be held to account.

Failure to protect and respect the right to protest will undermine civic freedoms and the ability of Bangladeshi citizens to hold their government to account.


Josef Benedict is a researcher covering the Asia-Pacific region for CIVICUS: The World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

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