Human Rights Commission: ‘UDP had right to protest, authorities should have respected it’
The decision by the authorities to deny the United Democratic Party (UDP) the permit to protest this week was a violation of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Vice President of the Human Rights Commission of Belize (HRC) Cynthia Pitts told The Reporter this week.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” These are the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“The Declaration”)’s article 20, Pitts reminded. She highlighted the fact that these principles are echoed in several other international conventions and Belize’s Constitution.
Along with other rights, such as freedom of association and expression, the freedom of assembly forms the bedrock of a person’s right and freedom to protest peacefully.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states that everyone “has the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly.” The OHCHR adds that the “right of peaceful assembly includes the right to hold meetings, sit-ins, strikes, rallies, events or protests, both offline and online.”
Pitts explained that, in the HRC’s view, the Police Department failed to provide a sufficiently reasonable and objective ground for denying the permit for a peaceful procession, as governed by section 13 of Belize’s Constitution and under the Control of Public Meetings and Public Processions Act (“the Act”).
Section 13 of the Constitution, like international conventions, states that a “person shall not be hindered in his freedom of assembly and association.”
The conventions, the Constitution, and the Act do provide some reasonable limitations on the exercise of this right, but Pitts underscored that, in the Commission’s view, none of those reasonable limitations formed the basis for the Police Department’s response to the Opposition.
For context, the letter, signed by Assistant Commissioner of Police Howell Gillett and dated August 18, 2022, states to UDP Chairman Michael Peyrefitte: “Your application to protest was duly considered. However, due to the State of Emergency in certain parts of the Southside of Belize City and other operational priorities, we will be unable to provide adequate security for the event. Therefore, we are unable to accede to your request at this time.”
Pitts shared that from a human rights perspective, the State of Emergencies (SOEs) themselves are measures used to suspend certain fundamental rights of individuals. Therefore, to use such a tool as the foundation and rationale for denying another fundamental right cannot be viewed as “good and sound” reasoning. “The sensible thing would have been to simply approve the procession, as is consistent with rights enshrined in international law and the Constitution of Belize,” Pitts affirmed.
The HRC’s vice president shared that even if there were concerns about the police’s ability to “provide adequate security” in the areas under the SOE, nothing prevented the authorities from having written a letter recommending an area outside of the SOE on the Southside.
This would have, at minimum, demonstrated their willingness to uphold the citizens’ rights while maintaining their concern for the SOE. The Act’s section 8(2) does allow the “appropriate officer” to set out the route that the procession is to follow, as well as the time when it could be held.
Additionally, in the case of holding a meeting, section 4(2) of the Act says the appropriate officer “shall, unless he is of the opinion that the holding of such meeting is likely to cause any obstruction to traffic or to cause inconvenience to the public or to cause a breach of the peace, issue a permit in writing for such meeting.” The letter also did not make any reference to this provision, Pitts observed.
The Act does provide aggrieved parties recourse via the magistrate courts, but HRC questions why the authorities would force Belizeans into that position at all, especially if it is that the protesters are committed to maintaining the peace.
Pitts concluded that democratic governments should be very wary of curtailing citizens’ rights and should be cautious as it pertains to entertaining such violations for ostensibly political purposes.