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Interview with Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association

Friday 28 April 2023

Interviewers: Andreas Frischknecht and Eduardo Mendez Zamora

Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, a citizen of Togo, was appointed as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association in April 2018. Prior to his appointment, Mr Voule served as the Advocacy Director and led the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Africa. Among many other senior roles in the field of human rights, he also held the position of Secretary-General of the Togolese Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, campaigned for the Togolese Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and served as the Secretary-General of the Amnesty International section in Togo.

Q:  Mr. Voule, how would you describe the significance of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association?

A:  The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association is indispensable, as it empowers individuals and communities to actively participate in public affairs and shape their future. These rights are at the core of any democratic society, enabling citizens to come together, organize, and defend their interests in a collective manner. They provide a platform for people to express their ideas, opinions, and grievances, which is essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy.

These rights form the cornerstone of all other rights, as they empower people to defend their human rights by uniting and associating. While some may view these rights as strictly political or even privileged, it is important to emphasise that they apply to all individuals, regardless of their background or affiliation. This universality allows people to address and tackle challenges collectively, such as climate change, poverty, and other pressing social issues. Through the exercise of these rights, the community becomes the agent of their development.

The right to freedom of association extends far beyond the strictly political realm, such as the formation of political parties. It also enables people to create various other types of associations, including those focused on specific concerns, interests, or sectors such as commerce. These associations ensure that individuals’ voices are heard, enabling them to come together and protest on the streets if necessary. In doing so, they can advocate for more inclusive policies that protect the rights of everyone, including vulnerable groups such as minorities and women.

By exercising these rights daily, citizens can hold their leaders accountable and influence the adoption of policies that reflect their needs and aspirations. This dynamic helps foster a vibrant civil society that actively contributes to the development of a more just and equitable world. 

Q:  What is the source of your mandate as Rapporteur?

A:  The legal basis for my mandate as Special Rapporteur is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). I am appointed by the Human Rights Council, through the resolution 15/21, outlining my responsibilities and the importance of defending the rights covered by my mandate. 
More generally, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association are enshrined in three major international human rights instruments: as well as the ICCPR (Articles 21 and 22), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Article 8) also protect these rights. In addition, the International Labour Organization Convention No. 87 specifically focuses on freedom of association for workers and the protection of their right to organize.

Q:  What does your role as Rapporteur entail?

A:  As Special Rapporteur, my role is defined by the resolution 15/21 of the Human Rights Council, which recognises the importance of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in fostering peace, stability, and development in democratic societies. The resolution directs me to study trends and challenges related to these rights, and to analyse how they are being exercised. It also asks me to assess whether states are properly implementing these rights, and to identify any barriers preventing people from enjoying them.  

Further, I am responsible for addressing complaints from citizens who believe their rights have been violated and communicating with states to remind them of their obligations. I also provide recommendations on how states can better protect these rights and promote good practices. To achieve this, I engage with civil society and development actors to ensure that these rights are well understood and protected.

Another aspect of my role is to prepare an annual thematic report based on observed trends relating to the freedom of peaceful assembly and association in various contexts, such as development, democracy, climate change, civil society participation, climate justice activism, and the digital era. These reports serve as a valuable resource for states, civil society, and other stakeholders to understand the current landscape and challenges related to these rights.

As part of my mandate, I also visit countries to evaluate the implementation and protection of these rights on the ground, providing recommendations on areas of success and those needing improvement. In recent years, I have visited countries like Sri Lanka, Armenia, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Niger and Brazil during crucial moments such as revolutions or presidential elections. These visits help me gain firsthand insight into how these rights are being exercised, allowing me to share best practices and develop targeted strategies for improving the protection and promotion of these rights.

Q:  Focusing on the complaints procedure, what is the volume of complaints you receive, and have you observed any trends in the types of violations alleged?  

A: We receive a considerable volume of complaints and communications each year relating to alleged violations of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Examples include allegations that individuals have been prevented from establishing an organisation or association, dissolution of associations without a legal basis, and excessive use of force against protesters. Between 16 April 2021 and 15 April 2022, we processed 181 cases, which is a significant number. This figure only includes the cases we were able to process. Some cases were not pursued due to insufficient information, an inability of the alleged victims to submit a complaint, or lack of individual consent to proceed. Sometimes it may happen that we don’t have enough human resources to process all of the cases and we need to prioritise. So far this year, as of 15 March 2023, we have processed 55 cases. Given the compounded violations experienced by individuals and groups exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, we often join forces with other relevant mandate holders. The number of active cases at a particular moment varies, but our team remains dedicated to addressing each case with due diligence.

Over the past seven years, the majority of cases have been related to various human rights violations committed by State and non-State actors in the context of peaceful protests. These complaints often involve allegations of repression, excessive use of force, detention, or sexual abuse, as well as instances where states have misused, abused, or adopted legislation that limits or severely undermines the right to protest peacefully. We have also observed an increasing trend in cases related to restrictions on access to funding for civil society organisations and restrictions on foreign funding, and proliferation of so called ‘foreign agents’ legislations across the regions, which significantly impacts the ability of various groups to advocate for their rights and interests and have led to the closing of many NGOs advocating for human rights and assisting victims and vulnerable communities.

Q:  When evaluating a complaint, what action do you take if you find a potential violation of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association?

A: When we receive allegations of potential rights violations, we assess the seriousness of the information provided and verify it through relevant UN offices and NGOs. We also require the complainant’s consent before proceeding with the case. Our procedure offers several advantages over other processes, including those conducted by treaty bodies. One of these is the expedited handling of complaints. We are able to act quickly when a violation is reported, sometimes initiating communication with the state in question within just a few days of being presented with an allegation. Our ability to respond promptly to alleged violations is vital.

Access to funding and reprisals against civil society organisations is one of the primary areas where we observe violations and receive complaints. Recently, several states have introduced laws that restrict civil society’s right to access resources, including foreign funding. These restrictions can have a substantial impact on various groups, such as labour unions, universities, bar associations, and marginalised groups who have limited access to national funding sources.  

If we find a potential violation of these rights, we will communicate with the government concerned, informing them of the allegations received and inquiring both as to the legal basis for the government’s actions, and how those actions align with the state’s obligation to enable, promote, protect the rights involved. Depending on the seriousness of the case, we may give the government 60 days to respond, or in more urgent situations, we may decide to make the international community aware of the situation through an immediate press release. The decision to make a case public even before receiving the state’s response lies with the Rapporteur.  

States have an obligation to respond to our questions, and we typically receive a response in about 70 per cent of the cases we process. From April 2021 to April 2022, for example, I issued 181 communications to states and received 124 responses. The content of these responses varies significantly, from outright denial of allegations to questioning specific details, or even committing to further investigation of the matter. In principle, states have a strong incentive to respond to our communications, and I have encouraged them to do so, as they want their side of the story to be made public when the case eventually becomes public, and to ensure their perspective is accurately represented.

By engaging with states on these allegations, we aim to promote a better understanding of the importance of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and encourage states to adopt policies that enable, support, and protect these rights effectively.