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Dissent and the ability to publicly express beliefs and opinions are essential to democracy. Protests and public gatherings are a central tool of public expression and engagement, often serving as the only avenue for advocacy seeking political, social, or economic reform. Despite the importance of protest to a free society, many states have failed to adequately protect protest and public speech. In fact, policing institutions overwhelmingly treat protests, assemblies, and other gatherings as security threats that should be discouraged. This approach to public assembly can lead policing institutions to resort to excessive, arbitrary, and discriminatory force during protests. Repressive practices that interfere with and undermine the freedom to speak, assemble, and protest burden democracy and impermissibly hinder public dialogue.

International law principles and standards, as well as most constitutions and domestic laws, have long protected the rights to protest and assembly. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) details a broad range of underlying and interdependent human rights necessary to realise the rights to protest and assembly.i These include the rights to: life; liberty and security of the person; humane treatment and respect for the inherent dignity of the person; privacy; freedom of expression; of assembly; the freedom to associate with others; non-discrimination in the enjoyment of each of these rights; and the right to an effective remedy for the violation of human rights. Collectively, these rights comprise “the rights to protest”, the core rights a state must protect and promote to enable the exercise of protest and public assembly.

To actualise the protection and promotion of the rights to protest, international law has identified six legal principles that should guide and inform state engagement with protest and public assembly: legality, precaution, necessity, proportionality, accountability, and non-discrimination. However, there is little direction on how states and their policing and security institutions can operationalise these principles.

Defending Dissent: Towards State Practices that Protect and Promote the Rights to Protest aims to fill this gap by bridging the divide between principle and practice and provide guidance on how states can protect and promote protest and public assembly. It builds upon previous efforts undertaken by INCLO and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association to identify general principles and good practices of protest policing. The report relies on information gathered from comparative desk research on policies and practices on policing protests, interviews with policing experts in eight countries, as well as consultations with and the expertise of INCLO organisations engaged in advocacy on human rights and policing. It is organised around three themes: (1) Preventive measures and institutional design; (2) Tactics and the use of force; and (3) Accountability and oversight. Within these themes, the report describes good and bad practices and provides recommendations on how international standards and principles can be implemented through national laws and regulations.

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