Interview with Christof Heyns: Major New UN Comment on Right of Peaceful Assembly

World Justice Project Executive Director Elizabeth Andersen is joined by Christof Heyns, Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria and member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, on WJP’s Rule of Law Talk Podcast to discuss the right of peaceful assembly. A new General Comment issued this week by the United Nations Human Rights Committee provides guidance on this topic at a critical moment, with protest movements on the rise across the globe, and many countries grappling with the appropriate response—something that has become even more complicated with the COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions on large gatherings.

The audio podcast is available at WJP. The text below is slightly edited for clarity.

 

Elizabeth Andersen [00:00:01] Welcome to Rule of Law Talk, a podcast series of the World Justice Project designed to share the latest learning about the rule of law: what it is, how it works, and how we can strengthen it. My name is Elizabeth Andersen. I’m the executive director of the World Justice Project, and I’ll be your host for today’s Rule of Law Talk.

The topic for today’s Rule of Law Talk is the right of peaceful assembly and a new General Comment issued this week by the U.N. Human Rights Committee on this topic. The UN’s new guidance comes at a critical moment, with protest movements on the rise across the globe and many countries grappling with the appropriate response, something that has become even more complicated with the COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions on large gatherings. To help us understand what international human rights law says about these issues, I’m delighted to have as our guest Professor Christof Heyns of the University of Pretoria. Professor Heyns is a leading expert on international human rights law. He is one of the 18 members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee that issued the new guidance this week, and he served as the Committee’s rapporteur responsible for preparing the guidance that’s been issued. Welcome, Christof, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Christof Heyns [00:01:36] Thanks for having me, Betsy.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:01:40] Let’s start with the basics. Can you tell our listeners briefly about the U.N. Human Rights Committee? What is it? Who’s on it? And what is your role?

Christof Heyns [00:01:52] Very good. So the UN has a number of human rights mechanisms and one of the main parts is the treaty system. So there are 10 main treaties and treaty bodies that monitor these particular treaties. The Human Rights Committee is responsible for monitoring one of these treaties, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For those states that have accepted this, the Committee hears individual communications: people who have gone to the highest court in their country can approach us. We also review state reports. And in the third place, we develop General Comments.

And so we have now adopted the 37th General Comment which is on the right of peaceful assembly. Really the aim of such a General Comment is to be an authoritative interpretation of a particular aspect of the treaty, typically a right, and in this particular case, we focused on the right of peaceful assembly.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:02:47] OK, great. And so this new interpretive guidance, or General Comment, as you call them, elaborates the Committee’s understanding of Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And there are 173 countries who have signed up to that treaty and agreed to abide by its terms. Just so everyone knows what we’re talking about, let me read Article 21 of the treaty. It states:

“The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right, other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

So that’s it. Seems pretty short and sweet and simple, and yet there’s, of course, lots to be interpreted in those words. And so that’s what your committee has been working on. You don’t issue guidance on the treaty all that often. This is, as you said, only the 37th time that the committee has issued a General Comment since the treaty came into force in the mid-70s. So why did you decide to take up this issue now?

Christof Heyns [00:04:19] So, our previous General Comment dealt with the right to life and before that there was one that focused on the right of personal security, and before that freedom of expression. Adopting a General Comment typically takes two years, or in the case of the last one, four years. I think what interested us in the right of peaceful assembly is that it brings together a lot of issues. It brings together Article 21, the one that you’ve read, which says that one has the right to assemble, but also many of the other rights: One’s right against ill-treatment under Article 7, one’s right to privacy, your right against discrimination, political participation, freedom of movement. So all those things come together with peaceful assemblies which are really at the intersection—the cutting edge—of tensions between states and the population. If things go right in assemblies there can be important social changes, you can re-negotiate the social contract. But many things can go wrong as well. And it can leave deep scars in society when it goes wrong. So it is an important social phenomenon.

In the last 50 years or so, many of the major changes that the world has seen, the social changes, came about because of peaceful assembly, which is really a relatively new phenomenon. So the end of de jure racial discrimination in the US; introducing women’s suffrage; the end of apartheid; the end of Soviet style communism in ’89; the anti-war demonstrations, pro-environment, the Arab Spring. So, many changes come about because of this. And it’s important that there’s a set of rules of engagement—rules of the game—in the sense that both sides or all sides involved know what to expect from each other and also what they can do themselves.

When we finished the General Comment on the right to life and were considering possible topics for the next General Comment, we looked at various aspects of the Covenant, such as the right to privacy. That’s, of course, an important right as well. In the end, we decided to go with this particular one. In both cases, technology plays a big role and raises new challenges. In earlier years in the case of peaceful assemblies, for example, one did not have all the less-lethal weapons that we have today. One didn’t have the possibility of state surveillance on the scale that we have it now. One didn’t have drones that could be used to do crowd control. And you could not ‘gather’ online before there was a world wide web. And so the need to address the impact of the new technologies played a big role in deciding to focus on peaceful assemblies. Technology does play an important role as far as privacy is concerned and I think the committee would need to look at that at some point. But I think we felt that we need to provide some guidance, give some content to peaceful assemblies in our times because of the prevalence of assemblies, the many rights implicated and the effect of technology on the right.

You mentioned that 173 states are bound by the Covenant. But the provision on peaceful assembly is very short. And so the idea was to give content to that, so that everyone knows what are the international standards on the right.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:07:38] Understood. It’s interesting to think about it as this real nexus of so many human rights issues bound up in this issue of assembly. As I understand it, it’s also been an area of personal interest and study for you over many years.

Christof Heyns [00:07:55] Yes indeed. I’m from South Africa, as you know, I grew up here and studied here. And so in the 1980s: state of emergency, the height of apartheid, things were changing in our country. And the most visible part of the struggle for human rights to me was really the rolling mass action of the time. And so I did my doctorate on civil disobedience in South Africa. It was also interesting to go back into our history – a history that I was not taught in a white school–and to see what Gandhi did and how he started this whole new phenomenon in South Africa, and then how it was used in the non-violent part of the struggle by the ANC and others. Gandhi had his own philosophy about it, but it was really here where it started. And then, of course, he used it in India and so forth.

For me as a South African, it was interesting to understand the history, but it was also interesting to understand the politics of what I saw around me and to try to understand what are the standards. At the time, the international standards were not really that much developed. There was a lot of philosophy and domestic law on it, so that was my focus: I developed what I called the “struggle approach” to human rights; essentially my own philosophy on the direct link between resistance and human rights.

Over time, more and more international standards developed. Many years later, when I was dean of my law school, I served as rapporteur on executions for the UN, between 2010 and 2016. And the first report I had to write for the Human Rights Council was within a month or two after my appointment. And I thought, what do I know enough about so that I can at least hope to say something new? And so this was indeed demonstrations. Given the mandate, I focused on the use of force by the police in such settings. This was at the end of 2010, and then the Arab Spring started in January 2011. And I thought, okay, well, this makes it relevant. The Human Rights Council picked up on that and then they appointed myself and the new rapporteur on assembly, Maina Kiai, from Kenya, to work for three years on a joint report between the two mandates on the management of assembly. We presented this report to the Council in 2016. And as rapporteur I have investigated assemblies that have gone wrong in countries such as Ukraine and Turkey and Burundi. And I served as an expert witness in the Marikana Investigation in South Africa. So, yes, it’s been an interest of mine for a long time.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:09:44] And it remains a very current topic, of course. I note the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has a protest tracker where they’re tracking major protest movements around the world, and since 2017, they’ve tracked 100 major protest movements, almost 30 of which have actually brought down governments or ousted leaders. So it seems to be quite an important political phenomenon in the world today.

Christof Heyns [00:10:18] It’s true that peaceful assembly has brought about a change of government in some cases. If one thinks about Sudan, Algeria, even the butcher of the Balkans, Slobodan Milošević came to his political end through demonstrations. So there have been changes of government. But I would not jump from the statistics you mention to the idea that 30% of the demonstrations worldwide lead to changes of government. If I think about my own country, there are these days around 12,000 demonstrations per year that are registered in South Africa, and none of them has brought about a change of government. And in many countries around the world there are incidences of peaceful assembly ranging from, in extreme cases, change of government, but in many other cases, changes of policy, changes of emphasis, also, acceptance of new norms such as gay rights, for example.

There’s a very interesting study that was done some two or three years ago, where Chenoweth and Stephan looked at demonstrations, and they say that peaceful assemblies are twice as successful in terms of bringing about social change in comparison with violent resistance, and also that in the longer term, the likelihood of having violence is much smaller if the transition has been relatively peaceful.

So I think those things are interesting. And yes, sometimes demonstrations leads to changes of government. But the way we define peaceful assemblies in this General Comment includes political assemblies, and of course, that is important, but also social gatherings for recreational, musical, cultural, or religious purposes: all those things are peaceful assemblies. A peaceful assembly is essentially the gathering of more than one person for a particular purpose. Not when they stand in line to catch a bus or something like that, but a gathering for a particular purpose. That is how we see it from the Human Rights Committee’s point of view. And I think most international bodies see that as a peaceful assembly, and it’s then a way of renegotiating the social contract, in many cases.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:12:36] So it’s really a feature of a healthy democracy, it sounds like. I was struck in the General Comment, by the observation that it can be a very important tool, particularly for communities that have been marginalized or excluded in society, to express themselves and to participate and to have input on policy. So that’s an important dimension. Why don’t you tell us what some of the most important elements of the new guidance are? What should be our main takeaways from this General Comment?

Christof Heyns [00:13:17] I think the main idea is that peaceful assemblies are a legitimate use of the public and other spaces. If one thinks on a very sort of practical level, streets are used for vehicles, but they also are used for marathons and for markets and so forth. And they’re closed off on a Saturday or whatever the case may be for that purpose. And peaceful assemblies, like these other social gatherings, are a legitimate use of space. So a number of domestic courts–Spain and Israel and others–have said the public space “is not only for circulation but it’s also for participation”. And I like that quote; even in the translation it comes across. So that’s the underlying idea. It is, as you say, part of democracy.

It is also part of the message of the General Comment that peaceful assembly is an individual right. So one should not in the first place think about the entire assembly exercising the right — and is it violent or is it not, or does it cause damage, and as a result that everybody’s responsible — the focus is on the individual. And even if there are some individuals in a larger group who are, in an isolated way, engaged in violence, this cannot be attributed to the group as a whole. Every individual has that right. As far as possible, they should be treated as individuals.

I think also the underlying philosophy is to say that the right of peaceful assembly should be dealt with by the authorities in a “content neutral” way. As you will know, this idea is strongly present in the US jurisprudence, for example. So the idea is, even if those who are engaging in assemblies are your political opponents or you don’t like their particular message for whatever reason, they are still allowed to do so. There may be some exceptions and maybe we can talk about that. But in principle, the approach should be content neutral.

People should be allowed also to exercise the right “within sight and sound” of their target. So by doing that, they can demonstrate to others that they feel strongly enough about this to gather around this. But they can also, for themselves, see what is the support that they have. So if you organize an assembly, if you think you’re going to have a million people and it’s only yourself who shows up, that’s a message to yourself about the popularity and the support for your idea. In fact, Gandhi had this idea that what he did were “experiments with truth”. And I think to some extent that’s true for peaceful assemblies today. It’s a way of testing ideas and then seeing what is the response. Putting your toe in the water, putting up a trial balloon. And in many cases, this can diffuse a situation. So the society as a whole can take note and they can internalize the fact that there are people who feel very strongly about a certain cause and then they can do something about it. So it’s almost the idea of precaution. Even if I’m not persuaded, now, I know that these people feel like that, and I can do something about it instead of it blowing up into a massive problem.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:16:51] The guidance covers a wide range of topics. I can imagine it was sometimes a heated debate among your 18 members of the committee. Tell us a little bit about the process by which you developed the comment.

Christof Heyns [00:17:11] Yes, and I think it’s important to emphasize that we decided two years ago already to do this. So it was before Covid and before Black Lives Matter. Of course, that makes it much more relevant now. But the idea was already there and the decision was taken two years ago. It is a very inclusive process. It’s the first time that I see such a process for myself from the beginning to the end. As UN rapporteur, for example, I was used to writing my own reports and seeing whoever I wanted to see and then you are responsible for it. In this particular case, we announced publicly that we are going to do this. We invited everybody who’s interested, and I think about 40 or so parties made submissions and came to address us when we started in March 2019. We meet three times a year in Geneva, when it’s possible in person. Now, these days online. But they came to address us when we started. And then I did the first draft of the General Comment and distributed it to my colleagues. At the time it was 114 paragraphs long, and we then took the rest of the year to go through this paragraph by paragraph, and word by word, sentence by sentence.

At the end of 2019, the new draft was adopted and it became a document of the Committee. We had it translated it into Spanish and French and published it and invited comments from states and from civil society, academics, international organizations, and we got 24 state responses in almost all the U.N. languages, including from three permanent members of the Security Council, and also people who specialize in this particular field. So then we went through it again, paragraph by paragraph, as a Committee. I presented this to the Committee and said, okay, this is what our paragraph said, these are the comments that we received, and these are my proposals for change. And then my colleagues, of course, came in, and in many cases we had to reach consensus on a new formulation. In some cases, we put it in square brackets and went back at the end before we finalized.

We also had regional consultations in, for example, Mexico and Thailand, in Poland and Johannesburg. And we had a weekend expert meeting on the question of online assemblies. So people came to Cambridge, and we then addressed the question whether peaceful assemblies should also cover online assemblies as well, not just the preparation for an actual assembly, but if nobody ever meets in person. The Me Too movement, for example–is that protected by the right of peaceful assembly? And I can say for myself, initially, I was skeptical about it. But as we went further, I became more and more convinced that many of the interactions that previously were held in person, now take place online. And one would be missing a very large part if one does not recognize that peaceful assemblies can take place online as well. So we got to the conclusion that peaceful assemblies can take place indoors, outdoors, online, off-line, in public spaces and in private spaces.

So we follow a broad definition of peaceful assembly. Then the next step is saying what are the obligations of the state? They must ‘respect and ensure the right”, which has a negative component (no undue interference) and a positive component (to facilitate the exercise of the right and to protect participants). And then, the next step after that is also to ask, when may it be restricted? Because, a peaceful assembly can be restricted as well. It’s not a recipe for anarchy. But what are the conditions under which it can actually be restricted? As we put it, what are the limitations on the restrictions?

Elizabeth Andersen [00:21:06] Well, it’s certainly an ambitious project you undertook and covers a lot of ground, with lots of standards and recommendations detailed. I think it’s interesting to think about how that all plays out in a concrete setting. And so you mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement and current protests, particularly here in the United States where I’m from. I’d be interested if you can share with our listeners how you see the Committee’s guidance helping us evaluate the response to that protest movement here in the United States. What’s appropriate? What’s not?

Christof Heyns [00:21:53] Well, I think a number of the themes of the General Comment are relevant in the United States and in other societies now as well. So the starting point is that this is an individual right. If there are members of a particular group of an assembly who are engaging in violence, this cannot be attributed to all members. In some cases, interventions are needed, not only permitted but actually required, if there is danger to the lives of people, for example, or to property. The state has a duty to protect, but that should be targeted as far as possible to the individuals concerned. These should be targeted interventions

I think the other overriding issue is the one of de-escalation. There are two approaches. One is to escalate the situation and to show superior force, so to speak. And, of course, if that’s done by the state, the other side also tries to show superior force, and it escalates. But the police themselves, and also the politicians, have a duty of de-escalation and to accommodate, to tolerate, some level of disruption, and to work towards preventing the situation from getting out of hand.

Perhaps more particularly, the General Comment also focuses on the use of military staff to do law enforcement – and I think much of that applies to paramilitaries as well. We don’t say this can never be done. But if it’s done, it is under exceptional circumstances, if there is no other way of doing it, and it should be on a temporary basis. And those who are involved must have the necessary training, including the human rights training, because, of course, the training of police and military staff differs very much. And then in the last place, they are bound by human rights standards. So the same standards that apply to the police also apply to military and paramilitary staff.

There’s also the issue of plainclothes police officers and the question of wearing identification. The General Comment emphasizes that law enforcement officials must wear clear identification. This is important for accountability purposes. If plainclothes police are used — and again, it’s not completely excluded, it may be the only way to have a positive intervention — before they use any force or arrest anybody, they have to identify themselves.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:25:04] The General Comment also makes reference to the guidance on less-lethal weapons that you had worked on when you were special rapporteur on executions, and certainly some of the very detailed recommendations there about different kinds of law enforcement tools would seem relevant to the unfolding situation here in the United States and elsewhere.

Christof Heyns [00:25:58] Yes, so this guidance was issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights about four weeks ago. It’s the UN Human Rights Guidance on Less-lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement. This is in parallel to what the Human Rights Committee did on peaceful assemblies in general; this Guidance focuses in particular on less-lethal weapons.

And yes, in 2014, when I was a special rapporteur on executions, it struck me that the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms of 1990 were written at the time when the technology was really not very developed, in terms of less-lethal weapons. They talked about “non-lethal weapons” in passing and a large part of the Basic Principles are specifically about the use of firearms. So that’s a very important document. But it gives no details on what we call today less-lethal weapons. And of course, we know that less-lethal weapons are often lethal. But in addition to that, they are often misused, even if they’re not used in a lethal way. And they are used much more easily than firearms. One can see that teargas is used in many societies almost beyond the point of saturation. And so if you add all of that up, one finds that the cumulative effect of less-lethal weapons can result in a high level of repression.

And so I worked with the OHCHR and people from the police of various countries and international lawyers and so on to develop the UN Guidance on less-lethal weapons. And that should be read together then with the Basic Principles of 1990. And then in the new General Comment of the Human Rights Committee, we simply refer to those two documents. So we didn’t have the room to set out all those rules in detail.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:27:30] Some of the litigation that has been brought about the protests and the response in Portland, Oregon, for example, relates to the treatment of volunteer medics who are there to provide help to protesters who may be injured. What does the General Comment say about that question?

Christof Heyns [00:27:58] The General Comment has a section on people who monitor, who do not participate in peaceful assemblies themselves. So journalists, for example, human rights defenders, and in that broader category, one can include medical personnel as well. And it makes the point that these people are protected under the Covenant itself. Even if the right of peaceful assembly under Article 21 is no longer applicable, if a demonstration has turned violent – where there is both widespread and serious violence — even in such a case, if it’s lawful to disperse the assembly and the authorities can tell the participants to go home, then the monitors, the journalists, and those who are from the National Human Rights Commission and so forth, they still have the right to monitor and to provide assistance then as well.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:29:11] I see. Now, help me understand this question of when an assembly turns violent. Of course, when an assembly is, or somebody who is participating in an assembly is violent, then it’s no longer a peaceful assembly. They no longer are exercising a right of peaceful assembly. So I would assume they’re not protected under Article 21 of the Covenant. But how does the committee suggest that we think about violence? In the case of Portland, for example, those defending the government response there have argued that some of the protesters have turned violent. They’re lighting fires. They’re threatening federal property. How should we think about the right of peaceful assembly in that kind of a context?

Christof Heyns [00:30:00] Yes, and there’s no doubt the state has the right and the obligation in some extreme cases to act against those who use such violence. In some cases, it may be better for the authorities not to immediately act, but then to later see whether prosecutions should be brought. But if somebody’s life is in danger or there’s serious violence or damage to property, that is within the powers and the duties of the state to interfere. But as far as possible, it should be aimed at those who are responsible and not be attributed to the group as whole. Only if the violence, the actual violence is both “serious and widespread”, does it affect the gathering itself.

But there’s also a situation where violence has not actually materialized yet. There are three instances where the situation can be deemed to be violent: if there’s incitement of violence; where there’s proof that there’s the intention to use violence; and also where violence is imminent. So even if it hasn’t occurred yet, it can be deemed to be violent. And if that’s manifestly widespread in the gathering as well, this may be attributed to the group as well.

I think what often goes wrong is that there is violence, and it’s the kind of violence that the state can and should act against. But then the reaction by the authorities is excessive, in the sense that it is aimed against the entire group, or that, for the individuals concerned, the use of force against them is excessive. It should never be punitive. If somebody is arrested, for example, as soon as that person has been subdued, for example, is handcuffed, then the use of force should stop, because it’s no longer necessary. Any force must be necessarily, the minimum that is required under the circumstances, and it must be proportionate to the objective that is pursued.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:32:20] I see. I would imagine that those are in practice challenging judgments for law enforcement or others who are managing a situation like this to make, and it would seem that training would be a particularly important element of effective management of these situations.

Christof Heyns [00:32:41] Training is very important. I think training and equipment are two elements of this broader emphasis that we also have in the General Comment on precaution. It’s no good waiting for the last minute where maybe a particular police officer is isolated, surrounded by a crowd, and then action has to be taken. That situation should not have been allowed to arise in the first place. So you have to go upstream. And in the same way one has to go upstream with training, so that the police are not overwhelmed by the situation, and also with equipment, so that less-lethal weapons are available and proper training on those less-lethal weapons is there.

But it’s impossible in an international document to identify exactly what should be done in every situation. So the training for the officer is important, but also the possibility of a recourse to courts afterwards is important, so that domestic decision making may be taken. We use these general notions of “widespread and serious violence” and so forth, but it has to be applied on a case by case basis to the issue in question. And so we give the general standards, but then it has to be interpreted locally.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:34:18] Do you have any examples of countries that are getting this right, where they’ve followed the approach that the committee is advocating in this General Comment, and we’ve seen a good outcome as a result?

Christof Heyns [00:34:36] Yes, I think it’s difficult to say that one particular country always has it wrong or one particular country always has it right. And it’s certainly not my role as an individual member of the Human Rights Committee to judge countries specifically.

But there are some examples of good practices. For example – and I think this started in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam—some countries have what they call the “safety triangle”. So it’s a communication triangle between the police, the politicians, and the participants. And my own country, South Africa, for example, has it in its laws that such communication channels must be established before an assembly. Many other countries have it as well. It says if there’s going to be an assembly, they have to be in touch with each other, get each other’s cell phone number and so on. So, for example, if the march goes down a street that the police didn’t expect, they can find out what is going on. Is it a sinister move or is it perhaps something else that has happened?

The city of Amsterdam briefed us on their approach. On the square, the Dam in Amsterdam, they often have up to six assemblies going on at the same time.

Northern Ireland, for example, often does not even require notification. The police say they use the Internet and they see advertisements about upcoming assemblies. So in many cases, they see their role as facilitating (and that’s the term used in the General Comment), as making it possible.

In some countries national human rights institutions monitor assemblies.

So those are some examples that we took to heart and I think that one can point to.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:36:40] That’s really interesting. I was struck in the General Comment with the idea that even restrictions on the right of assembly should be approached with the spirit of facilitating assembly and that there are limits placed on restrictions with that spirit in mind.

Christof Heyns [00:37:04] Yes, and a lot of the General Comment is about stating what is the normal position, but then there are exceptions. And it’s very important, of course, what one sees as the default position, and then exceptions have to be justified. So the default position is that assemblies have to be allowed. And often that’s enough. If the state doesn’t interfere with it, if there is no undue interference with it, that’s often enough, the negative obligation. But in some cases, a positive obligation is also to facilitate, for example, to cordon off a street, to divert the traffic, but also to protect, if members of a particular group, say, a minority group, are demonstrating and then they are attacked by members of the public or the counter-demonstration. And so restrictions have to be justified because the normal position is to allow assemblies to take place. But restrictions may be imposed. There is no unlimited right of peaceful assembly, but there must be good reasons for the restrictions.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:38:14] Well, it’s an incredibly helpful contribution to human rights and the rule of law that the Committee has articulated this guidance. There is much to learn from here and to bring clarity to this really important practice in democratic society. So congratulations and thank you for this extraordinary effort over the last couple of years. I guess maybe in closing, can you tell our listeners where they can learn more about the Committee, the General Comment, the guidance on less-lethal weapons and other issues that we’ve talked about today?

Christof Heyns [00:38:54] Certainly, so the new General Comment will be released tomorrow, 29 July, Wednesday around noon, and it will be on the website of the Human Rights Committee. So the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights hosts the website of the Human Rights Committee, and there you will find both the new General Comment and also the less-lethal weapons guidance. I should also mention that there are two websites that we developed not in the U.N., but at the University of Pretoria, where I am, to keep track of the domestic laws. So there is one website www.rightofassembly.info, where we have the basic laws on assembly of all the countries in the world. And then there’s another one, www.policinglaw.info, where we have the laws on the use of force of all the countries of the world. And those are, I think, good starting points because ultimately these international standards are guidelines and they give content to the law on the international level.

But the first line of defense is the domestic level. So if things are done properly on the domestic level, lives are saved. It’s possible for people to diffuse situations. It’s possible for democracy to take its course. If things go wrong on the domestic level, it takes a very long time before it reaches us on the international level. So it’s very important that these international standards are translated to the domestic level. And that will be the ultimate test of this General Comment as well, whether it’s reflected in the domestic law, and many countries already have lots of these elements. But I think it’s really a chain with a number of links, and all of them have to be in place, especially in these sort of highly tense situations where if one thing goes wrong, it can actually cause quite a lot of damage.

Elizabeth Andersen [00:40:58] Well, very good. I’m sure folks will be taking advantage of those resources and thanks again for taking the time to share this information and perspective with us and for your broader work over the last couple of years.

Christof Heyns [00:41:15] Thanks Betsy, it has been a pleasure talking to you as well. 

About the Author(s)

Christof Heyns

Professor of Human Rights Law and Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University of Pretoria. Member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Elizabeth Andersen

Executive Director of the World Justice Project. Follow her on Twitter (@AndersenBetsy).