Narratives surrounding our “first right” – the democratic right to protest.

Camila FrancoBy Camila Franco

Unless cited, the views expressed in this blog are my own.

A memorable event during my internship at the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (IDEHPUCP) was when the center realized its sixteenth edition (virtually) of the Human Rights Conference titled “Bicentenario: 200 Años de Indiferencia”, or “Bicentennial: 200 Years of Indifference” in English. The week-long conference sought to visibilize historically marginalized groups, as well as identify challenges and generate proposals for stronger nation building by focusing on three axes of analysis: corruption, memory and inequality. 

Following four days of panels featuring speakers from various origins and sectors of specialization, the event concluded with the closing keynote conference: “Protesta Social y Constitución” (or Social Protest and Constitution), by Dr Roberto Gargarella, a jurist and sociologist from the University of Buenos Aires. The keynote was also supported by Eduardo Dargent, a lawyer and political scientist at PUCP, and moderated by Elizabeth Salmón, the executive director of IDEHPUCP. In this event, Dr. Gargarella characterized social protests as “el primer derecho” or the ‘first right’ to which special deference and protection is owed, since the right to protest represents the possibility of defending all other human rights and freedoms. The right is not merely to the act itself, but rather to dissent, and to demand that the people’s dignity and interests be respected. He noted that presently, the right to social protest is surrounded by controversy. I want to further explore this fractured relationship that democratic constitutions have with their “first right”. 

The right to protest corresponds to the right of peaceful assembly, which has been enshrined within international human rights doctrine, under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as such all 173 states parties are bound to respect it. Likewise, this right is recognized according to Article 15 of the American Convention on Human Rights. In Peru, the right to assemble peacefully is guaranteed under Article 2, paragraph 12 of the country’s Political Constitution.

Even though peaceful protests are legally recognized as fundamental to all democratic constitutions, they are routinely stifled around the world by law, police force, or court orders. Obvious concerns arise from the excessive use of force deployed by the state against its civilians, and the potentially unconstitutional ways in which this freedom has been restricted via public property laws, for example. But I am equally concerned by the devaluation of the potential that this “first right” has to combat inequality.

 Marginalized groups, without economic resources, are more likely to have their quality of life in the hands of the state. A state that finances social assistance, controls child and family services, public education and the penal system, for example. When government policies put special interests before human rights, those entrenched in these state-regulated bureaucracies feel the impacts most gravely. It is no coincidence that throughout history, socially oppressed groups have relied primarily on assembly rights to protest the systemic injustices suffered. Those who protest against the state often lack access to political influence, have no resources to litigate unjust government policies, and their minority interests are not always promoted by democratically elected bodies. Therefore, a crowd gathering as a form of disruption can become the only way to get attention, apply pressure, and demand political change. It is important to recognize, then, that protesting is both a phenomenon of necessity and a legitimate tool to take advantage of in a democratic society. 

However, social protests continue to polarize and attract a controversial reputation. Why?

In my opinion, part of the answer lies in two mainstream narratives that are propagated by those who want to defend the status quo (or, more precisely, by the state who is being criticized). Distorted narratives are used to discredit the group of individuals who participate in the protests, by showing them as illegitimate messengers, who should not be taken seriously, or as immoral people, who should not be indulged. This allows the state to deflect systemic responsibility for the situation that generated the protest in the first place, and to divert attention away from the demands the protestors introduce.

We saw this tactic deployed in Canada last year when members of the legislative assembly referred to the defenders of Indigenous lands during the Wet’suwet’en ‘blockades as “spoiled kids,” whose main motivation for participating in any demonstration was “TikTok culture.” These types of character attacks are commonly used to undermine protesters, especially youth, in order to dismiss the legitimate concerns within their message. Likewise, these critiques wrongly characterize the act of protesting as pleasant, when in fact protesters are often subjected to tense scrutiny and the risk of violence or police abuse.

In the same sense, by qualifying the protesters as immoral individuals, it is possible to create a an imaginary confrontation between the interest of the protesters and the interest of the broader public. This is done so by qualifying protestors as “terrorists” or “criminals”, like former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe did when referring to those protesting against the 2021 tax reform in May (the reform sought to increase increased taxes for lower and middle income Colombians, and also raised taxes on utilities and food). It is important to point out that even in the case of demonstrations that involve violent actions, it is inaccurate and harmful to generalize the entire mobilized population as such. In effect, this language scares onlookers away from the scenes of mobilization, keeping them disconnected from the true message of those on the ground and exacerbates a social polarization, further excluding those who are marginalized. These narratives work to normalize the repression of dissent and also underestimate the real potential that social protests have to combat inequality.

It is also recognized that in circumstances where peaceful protests havve failed to create change, vulnerable groups may have valid reasons to engage in more disruptive means to combat the oppressive status quo. For this reason, it is worth analyzing the balance between material damage and obstruction of public space with the cause and objective of the social demonstration. To adequately protect the potential for equality that protests bring, it is necessary to create a very clear distinction between what constitutes never permissible acts of violence and what is disruption that still falls within the s of legitimate democratic protest. The current vague and narrow definition of what it means to be “peaceful” has allowed the power holders to weaponize the rule of law and carry out massive human rights abuses, when they decide that a protest no longer fits their definition of “peaceful” and therefore should not be protected. When the state justifies quelling protests in the name of stability and order, we must seriously ask ourselves: at what cost?

As Dr. Gargarella stated during his keynote address, most social anger has to do with inequality. We can think of the disruption caused by protests as a symptom that there is a tear in our social fabric – that a systemic failure is no longer bearable. This tension cultivates a democratic dialogue which provides an opportunity for education, negotiation, compromise or accountability.  By emphatically protecting the freedom of assembly, we can uphold a more compassionate and equal version of justice. Instead of avoiding the discomfort that protests bring, we could celebrate protests for social justice as an indication of an engaged citizenry that is committed to the wellbeing of the collective. We can shift our narrative and celebrate protesters as defenders of our democracy, of our constitutions and of a future where human rights are truly inalienable.

The little things are the big things

Camila FrancoBy Camila Franco

I spent my summer working for the Instituto de Democracia y Derechos Humanos de la Pontificia Universidad del Perú (IDEHPUCP), an academic institute created in 2004 in response to Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la verdad y Reconciliación, “CVR”) which sought to provide an official record of the human rights violations that occurred in Peru during the internal armed conflict between 1980 and 2000. IDEHPUCP seeks to strengthen democracy and the enforcement of Human Rights by conducting interdisciplinary trainings, engaging in applied research, public advocacy, and the promotion of public policies with civil society and the state. Over the last 17 years, the institute has developed seven fascinating lines of work: Memory, democracy, and post conflict; Business and human rights; Human mobility; Indigenous villages; the Inter-American Human Rights System; Fight against corruption; and Rights of persons with disabilities. I was fortunate enough to contribute to diverse projects in various lines of work. I primarily conducted comparative research on issues of business standards, technology implications on migrant populations, Indigenous resilience to climate change, and I wrote summary reports of discrimination cases heard at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

 

This virtual internship has come with the many familiar challenges and advantages of online work: periodic feelings of isolation and disconnectedness, time zone confusion, blurred work-life routine but likewise tremendous flexibility. I accepted this internship knowing that it would likely be remote, but I admittedly held on to the unrealistic hope that our global health crisis might be under control by the time May arrived. Once the placement was officially confirmed as remote, I grieved the idea of a summer in Lima.  I craved experiencing a new culture, being immersed in my native language, and physically connected to the Andes Mountain range, my native land. At the same time, I remained grateful to have the chance to ameliorate my professional Spanish skills, while contributing to the important mandate of a leading human rights institute in Latin America. There was also the added benefit of being able to work remotely from different locations here in Canada to accommodate for personal circumstances. I also understood that with all the hardships that this pandemic has brought, having to complete my summer internship remotely from the safety of my home was a privilege above all else. Yet as soon as I met the incredible people that breathe life into the IDEHPUCP, my longing for South America swung right back.

Virtual Birthday Celebration in June for all missed ‘Covid Birthdays’ at IDEHPUCP

My supervisor and colleagues constantly did many things to make me feel a part of their academic family. Every single morning at 9 am on the dot, our coordinator would send a “Buenos días” text on our WhatsApp Academia chat, to which we would all reply with greetings and exchange funny memes at the start of our day. On Friday afternoons we could always expect our coordinator to ask us about our coming weekend and wish us all well. In June, the institute held a big team “birthday party” to celebrate all our covid birthdays and exchange stories about our worst and best birthday memories. Although, in my opinion, this year has provided more than enough zoom birthdays with the audio disaster that is getting multiple people to attempt singing the birthday song at once (always inevitably unsynchronized despite the sincerest efforts) this night was one of my favourites. These gestures might seem trivial, but they all made a significant difference in how supported I felt by the team I worked alongside with for three months, and it allowed us to build more personal connections, despite the 6,400 km distance.

Of course, most of our conversations regarded the projects we were working on at any given time. We had bi-weekly meetings that provided the opportunity for every line of work to update the rest of the group on ongoing tasks, deadlines and make calls for feedback and assistance. These meetings, as well as the lively WhatsApp group chat, served as essential debrief spaces for the team this summer. Particularly as Peru went through a tumultuous presidential election that erupted civil unrest, and as the country tragically ascended to the highest per capita covid-fatality rate in the world. I felt an immense sense of sadness knowing that my own colleagues could not enjoy the access to vaccination and health care that I could by staying here in Canada. It also forced me to reflect on this desire to “experience” Peru, as a foreign Colombian-Canadian, and to what extent this wish is insensitive to the reality of what it means to live in a country under a fragile democracy, and a health care system overwhelmed by the pandemic. I knew that supporting the institute from Canada was the best thing I could do in this context, and I was grateful to learn about the various areas of work that my supervisors are experts in. The memes and zoom celebrations were just a bonus which reflected the warmth of those working tirelessly at IDEHPUCP.

 

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