OTTAWA – Amnesty International has been following with great concern the developments relating to the Ottawa protests’ “Freedom Convoy 2022” blockade.
“Amnesty International Canada is deeply troubled by the reports of violence, harassment, intimidation, and hate speech which have surfaced since January 29th,” said Amnesty International Canada Secretary General Ketty Nivyabandi. “Nazi flags, Confederate flags, and other symbols of racism and hate exhibited have no room in peaceful protests. Equally concerning is the affiliation of some of the Convoy organizers with overtly racist, white supremacist groups.”
Stop violence and harassment at Ottawa protests
The failure of law enforcement agencies to respond swiftly and appropriately to reports of violence and harassment demands a prompt, thorough, and impartial public inquiry. The inquiry must also address instances of interference with residents’ rights to public health and social services delivery, as well as the harassment of healthcare workers, reporters, people living with disabilities, and racialized and other marginalized persons.
“Authorities hold an equal international obligation to protect people from violence and harassment and to respect the rights of all protesters to peaceful assembly and expression of their views. Violence and harassment however are not part of exercising the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Amnesty International calls on authorities to take immediate and appropriate action to facilitate peaceful protests, while investigating and holding those perpetrating violence or inciting hate to account,” added Nivyabandi.
Reports of abuse at Ottawa protests “Freedom Convoy 2022”
Throughout the demonstrations, racialized workers and residents have reported being singled out for abuse. Over 400 hate messages are under investigation by the Ottawa Police. Frontline services have expressed concern about the impact of the ongoing demonstration on their ability to provide to already vulnerable clients. People with disabilities have reported disruptions and delays in receiving supportive care, given ongoing street blockages by demonstrators. Journalists experienced threats and harassment, both online and while reporting from the demonstration zone. Until a recent court injunction, residents were subjected to almost continuous high-decibel noise levels, including honking, air horns, train whistles, street parties and fireworks since the demonstration began at the end of January.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council, and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg have also expressed concerns about the misuse and appropriation of sacred, traditional objects and ceremonies.
Police response to Ottawa protests
Further, Amnesty International Canada notes with great concern the permissive response afforded by the Ottawa Police to a largely white-dominant protest group. This response is in sharp contrast with how law enforcement authorities have mistreated Indigenous and racialized protesters in the past.
“Amnesty International Canada expresses solidarity with the frontline organizations, including homeless and women’s shelters whose operations have been impacted by these protests, as well as 2SLGBTQI+ and racialized communities – particularly Jewish, Muslim, Black and Indigenous communities – who have been targeted by hate propaganda,” said Nivyabandi.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Peaceful protests are a fundamental part of a vibrant society. The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is a vital means of political engagement, with a long history of being a valid and effective means of bringing issues and grievances to light. Facilitating and protecting the right to freedom of assembly contributes to the protection of other human rights, including freedom of expression.
The right to hold assemblies and demonstrations on public roads has been consistently upheld by regional and international human rights bodies, which have established that urban space is not only an area for circulation but also a space for participation. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association has affirmed that “the free flow of traffic should not automatically take precedence over freedom of peaceful assembly.” However, these rights are not unlimited. They can be restricted in order to protect the rights of others, public order and public health. The UN Human Rights Committee has said that “an assembly that remains peaceful but which nevertheless causes a high level of disruption, such as the extended blocking of traffic, may be dispersed, as a rule, only if the disruption is ‘serious and sustained’.” In any case, the onus is on the authorities to justify any restrictions.
Under international human rights law, states also have the obligation to prohibit and eliminate racial discrimination, including in the enjoyment of the right to security of the person and protection by the State against violence. The UN Human Rights Committee clearly stated that “… peaceful assemblies may not be used for propaganda for war (…) or advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (…). As far as possible, action should be taken in such cases against the individual perpetrators, rather than against the assembly as a whole.”
Amnesty International has produced reports outlining good practices in the policing of assemblies, as well as guidelines on the use of force by law enforcement officials.