UN report highlights major concerns over association and protest rights

At the time of writing, the United States remains on the CIVICUS Monitor's Watch List of countries where there is an immediate and developing threat to civic space.

Association

The former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, made an official visit to the U.S. in July 2016 to assess the situation for freedoms of peaceful assembly and association in the country. Kiai presented the report to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2017 with the following findings on association rights, especially for trade unions and workers organising strikes. 

The report touched on the lack of strong protections for workers’ rights, especially migrant workers. He also criticised the 28 states that have enacted “right to work” laws, which are deliberately crafted to take away people’s freedom to join together and negotiate for better working conditions. On another front, Kiai emphasised the importance of supporting and protecting the right to strike as intrinsic aspect of the right to freedom of association. The report, however, highlights numerous limitations on this right in the U.S., including prohibitions on secondary strikes and strikes by public employees, as well as the ability of employers to replace people who are on strike. In Kiai's opinion, the permanent replacement of people who are on strike negates the right to strike by stripping working people of their strongest tool to express their demands.

In a separate issue, the U.S. Border Patrol raided a humanitarian aid group’s base camp along the U.S.-Mexico border, arresting four men who had crossed into the U.S. and were receiving medical treatment from the group. The raid reportedly violates a 2013 agreement between No More Deaths, an aid organisation providing lifesaving assistance to people crossing the border, and the Border Patrol, which states that the assistance they provide would be “recognized and respected by government agents, and should be protected from surveillance and interference”. The founder of No More Deaths, John Fife, characterised the raid as “clearly a strategy by the border agents to cripple and even make moot the lifesaving mission of a medical facility they had agreed to respect”.

Peaceful Assembly

On the situation for peaceful assembly in the U.S., Kiai's report showed that America is “struggling” to live up to its ideals and its constitutional guarantee of the right to peaceful assembly". The report found that the legal environment for peaceful protesters in some states is “increasingly hostile”, citing at least 20 states that have proposed legislation making it harder to protest, creating harsher penalties for protesters who are arrested, and in two states, removing liability from drivers who accidentally injure protesters on roadways.

The report also highlighted “the use of military equipment and excessive use of force against protesters” and “that demonstrations by different communities are policed differently, with racial, ethnic, cultural and class-based biases”.

Kiai's concluding observations stressed the importance of the free exercise of the right to peaceful assembly and association, particularly now that the country is experiencing social and political divisions. Addressing those divisions “requires an environment that encourages participation, openness, dialogue and a plurality of voices”.

In a separate incident, U.S. authorities denied permission for a musical performance to be held near the U.S.-Mexico border that intended to bring attention to American immigration policies. The performance was moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where musicians performed under a banner reading "Tear Down That Wall" to protest plans to build a wall along the 1,933-mile U.S.-Mexico border. A counter protest took place nearby on U.S. soil.

One recent example of the criminalisation of protests is the ongoing trial of protesters arrested during the mass demonstration on Inauguration Day in January 2017. Initially, approximately 230 people were arrested and charged with felony rioting. However, on 27th April 2017, additional charges were made against 212 defendants, including three of whom had not previously been charged. Given the additional charges of incitement to riot, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property, many of the protesters are now facing up to 80 years in prison.

The American Civil Liberties Union of DC filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, Metropolitan Police Department officers and D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham for making unconstitutional arrests, using excessive force, denying arrested people food, water, and access to toilets, and invasive searches of protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights on Inauguration Day.

In a separate incident and as reported on the Monitor, a peaceful demonstration outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington DC was disrupted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's security detail. Charges were reportedly filed against a dozen members of the Turkish president’s security detail for their involvement in the attack. 

Expression

In recent months, government authorities have made attempts to undermine the right to access information. For example, the director of the Senate Radio and Television Gallery told television reporters on 13th June that they will need to obtain permission to conduct interviews in Senate hallways. Following concerns raised by reporters, the regressive measure was immediately lifted.  

In a separate incident, on 17th June 2017 two journalists were arrested in Minneapolis during a demonstration against the acquittal of the police officer who shot Philando Castile. The journalists, Minnesota Daily’s David Clarey and City Page’s Susan Du were charged with unlawful assembly and public nuisance but later released. 

Impunity for some attacks against the press does not always prevail. Montana politician Greg Gianforte who attacked a journalist from the Guardian newspaper has been fined and sentenced to community service and required to take anger management classes. In an apology, Gianforte said his “physical response” to the reporter’s “legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable, and unlawful”. After the incident, a coalition of press freedom organisations filed a complaint with congressional ethics officials asking that Gianforte be disciplined for the assault.