News  Canadian Civil Liberties Association calls on UN to protect right to protest

Recent police crackdowns in Quebec spark international concern

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) joined eight international civil society NGOs in late March in writing a letter calling for the UN to amend a draft resolution protecting the right to protest. The letter directly cited police repression in Quebec as a primary example of recent violations of that right.

The letter addresses a need for more precise language involving peaceful protests, wherein current broad definitions can result in violations of democratic rights. It also calls for reduced state violence during peaceful protests, and identifies a need to regulate government protocols for the use of less-lethal weapons technology.

“We believe that protests need to not just be tolerated, but be facilitated in a democratic society,” Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms Program at the CCLA, told The Daily. “It is through these protests that people deal with grievances in a democratic society.”

The CCLA is a national organization with a self-described mission to promote “respect for, and observance of, fundamental human rights and civil liberties.” Previously, the CCLA, along with fifty other organizations, called for a public inquiry into police actions during the Quebec student protests.

The letter addressed to the UN comes in light of ongoing observations of repressive state measures at peaceful demonstrations in Quebec, and seeks to shine a critical light on this issue.

In the past month alone, Montreal has seen at least three protests shut down by preemptive police intervention. Such intervention tactics typically employ frequent use of non-lethal weapons, such as CS gas bombs.

“In our experience, many countries deploy this technology at a much earlier stage […] using it to disperse peaceful protests or in lieu of other available de-escalation techniques,” the letter states. The letter recommends that established protocols be put in place to regulate the use of such weapons.

However, this is not the case in Quebec, where these weapons are used arbitrarily at protests. These measures have been attributed to the municipal by-law P-6, which requires protestors to provide the routes and dates of demonstrations to police for approval in advance.

In addition to the use of non-lethal weapons, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) has used tactics such as kettling and mass arrests to contain protests.

“We are concerned that the police have chosen this by-law. In both [the] Quebec and Canadian charters there are protections from unreasonable detention when the police detain people. I can’t say if they’ve been adhered to,” said Zwibel.

“It’s an attempt to discourage protest activity, for sure,” she said. “The protests [in Montreal] have gotten much smaller. It could be a function of people deciding if it’s worth the trouble.”

Such tactics, Zwibel said, may discourage protest on a larger level.

“There will always be people who are very committed to the cause and willing to face the consequences,” she noted, “but even people who are committed to the cause may decide that the constant interaction with the police and the ticketing is detracting from the ability to protest.”

Additionally, the letter raised concerns about bystanders facing the brunt of these police tactics.

“The blanket classification of an entire assembly as non-peaceful has the effect of arbitrarily abrogating the peaceful assembly rights of a large number of individuals,” the letter states.

The letter also raises broader civil liberties concerns regarding increased state restrictions on protesting.

“Although protest management can be an important state role, excessive state regulation of peaceful assembly also has the potential to significantly chill peaceful protest,” the letter states.

The letter specified the need to “include a recognition that the state’s responsibility to protect, respect, and fulfill the right to peaceful assembly […] extends to the obligations to minimize legislative or regulatory practices that may chill the exercise of these rights, including measures such as prior approval permitting schemes.”