The right to protest peacefully is a fundamental tenet of a free democratic society. The right is grounded in international legal instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under article 19, the freedom of expression, and article 21 and 22, the freedom of association, as well as many national constitutions and laws.
It is a right especially protected given its nature as a form of expression of popular will. The only time this right may be curbed or limited is for the protection of national security, public health or the protection of the rights and freedoms of the people. The nature of the limitation of the right must be directly proportional to the threat to public order or national security that the protest represents.
The very existence and global acceptance of fundamental human rights demonstrates the necessity to monitor the State’s treatment of its citizens and ensure that the population is respected and given the dignity it deserves. Human rights law keeps the State in check to make sure it cannot abuse its position of power. Peaceful protests are a form of civic action to demonstrate resistance to a government-enacted policy or dissatisfaction with unresolved problems. When citizens feel they have exhausted all options in terms of communicating with the State and have received no acknowledgement, peaceful protest must be a viable route to ensure complaints are listened to. If civil society is not permitted to react against its government, the governing system is perceived as autocratic and unwilling to listen to the people and incorporate their ideas in policy. In this respect the State cannot be described as democratic.
Dissent and the possibility to say ‘no’ are what characterise a healthy democracy where citizens feel they can actively participate in society and when all channels seem blocked, can peacefully protest and their voices will be listened to. In a healthy democratic State, citizens should feel free to express their ideas and opinions in public spaces without being threatened by authorities.
Colombia has a great tradition of popular uprisings which are no less prevalent today. People gather in great swathes in the capital city to demand their rights and call on their government to listen. Strikes have also characterised the past decades of Colombian history, the huge agrarian strikes scarring the recent memory of the country with a surge of violence. On the outside at least it appears that Colombia maintains its status a liberal democracy, allowing manifestations and demonstrations to occur.
However, this activism cannot be a veil for the injustice that pervades behind the scenes. Many activists have been unlawfully detained and many others treated unjustly by the police. A reoccurring theme has been the premature involvement of the police in protests which are peaceful and do not represent a threat to public security. A controversial law was passed in 2011 with articles specifying that obstruction of public roads and thoroughfares is a criminal offense. Although courts ruled this law did not infringe on the rights of Colombians, it is easy to see how this could be used to criminalise those occupying public spaces in peaceful protest.
The Colombian constitution reiterates the fundamental nature of the rights expressed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, thus the State has the duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of expression and association. Much of the rural and indeed urban population of Colombia have no physical access to justice given their lack of capital to pay for legal representation and the slow and often impossible nature of the justice system in the country.
Therefore the right to protest peacefully is of fundamental importance in a country that has experienced so much injustice yet continues to fight for restitution and reparations. The only way many feel they can make their voice heard in the public sphere is by occupying public space and expressing their opinions. It is important that people understand their rights and in turn that the State protects them so that the liberal democracy Colombia claims to be can thrive and a lasting peace between all actors in the conflict can be reached and maintained.