I. GLOBAL TRENDS

If each year could be associated with a right, 2011 was undoubtedly the year of freedom of assembly. The uprisings now collectively referred to as the Arab Spring that began in North Africa in late 2010, spread throughout the region during the year. Well after the dramatic regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, mass protests continued in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen,Saudi Arabia and Syria, where a particularly brutal repression, still ongoing, attracted unanimous condemnation internationally as well as sanctions from the Arab League.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and exasperated by decades of corrupt authoritarian government, civil society mobilised in many countries in other regions of the world, particularly in Africa.  Protests, either linked to elections or to high commodity prices, erupted in Angola, Malawi, Swaziland, and Uganda – to name but a few. In Angola, demonstrations started in March to protest against the 32-year rule of President dos Santos. The demonstrations, which continued with varied intensity throughout the year, were met with unnecessary and disproportionate force by the police, which also violently prevented journalists from covering the events.

Though protests did not develop as intensely in other regions, regimes in Asia were worried enough to restrict their laws and regulations. Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Malaysia were in the process of passing new restrictive legislation. In Malaysia, the House of Representatives passed the Peaceful Assembly Bill, which outlaws street protests and authorises police to impose conditions, including time, date, and venue. Organisers of unauthorised assemblies would face hefty fines. At the time of writing, the bill remained pending in the Senate. China responded to anonymous online calls for protests by disappearing up to two dozen human rights defenders and questioning and threatening scores of others.

Instances of violent dispersal of protests and refusal of permission to hold assemblies also occurred in many countries in Europe and Central Asia, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Serbia, and Uzbekistan. In the latter, faced with a de facto ban on protests, human rights defenders challenged the authorities and organised several small demonstrations: they were violently dispersed by the police, participants were arrested, questioned and sentenced to the payment of fines. Protests were also violently dispersed in Latin America. In Cuba, in particular, the authorities launched a crackdown reminiscent of the 2003 mass arrests of human rights defenders, pro-democracy and political activists.

Against this backdrop, the creation by the United Nations Human Rights Council of the new mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association was very welcome. It is hoped that it will contribute to better protection of human rights defenders worldwide, and that it will elicit more cooperation from states than the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders has so far enjoyed.

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