Governments have the right to restrict protests on public health grounds, within reason, the UN Human Rights Committee has said, as demonstrations clash with coronavirus outbreaks around the world.
The committee stepped in to formulate its legal interpretation having seen a gap in the international norms being tested before the pandemic started, since when the matter has become more pressing.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by 173 countries, including the US and China, has always allowed for restrictions to be placed on the rights of peaceful assembly on grounds including public health and the new document, called a “general comment”, confirmed that.
The report said:
The protection of ‘public health’ ground may exceptionally permit restrictions to be imposed, for example where there is an outbreak of an infectious disease and gatherings are dangerous.
However its author, Christof Heyns, was at pains to stress that this ground should not be used to unduly restrict demonstrations.
“This ground for restrictions should not be abused as a pretext to silence protest and opposition,” he said, adding that a government could, for example, limit the number of demonstrators in a public square to allow for social distancing.
More broadly, a summary of the document said that states have duties “not to prohibit, restrict, block or disrupt assemblies without compelling justification”.
Heyns said the legal interpretation was intended to set out the “rules of the game not just for protesters but for police”.
On the issue of whether protesters were allowed to wear masks to hide their identity as pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have, the report said they had that right.
It also said that public order, one of the other grounds on which governments can restrict assemblies, “should not be used unduly”.
Asked about whether a state requirement to wear face coverings during the pandemic was a human rights violation, Heyns told Reuters:
It’s understandable and acceptable that for health reasons there may be limits on your rights.
However his comments on face coverings were not part of the official legal report. In parts of the United States, as well as Australia, the issue of mask-wearing has been divisive in some cases resulting in anti-mask protests.
The 18-person UN Human Rights Committee does not have enforcement powers but it reviews the party states’ implementation of its rules and may call them out for not conforming.