The Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Court) has just ruled the the right to peaceful protest, as guaranteed by the Constitution, is not “absolute” (as is the right to life, for example), and as such, peaceful protests without authorization from the government are now illegal.
The court ruled unanimously that:
Any concentration, demonstration or public reunion that does not receive the endorsement of the respective authorities will make it possible for security bodies, with the goal of ensuring the right to free transit and other constitutional rights, to act to disperse it with the most adequate means, within the framework of the constitution and the law.
In other words, the supreme court is saying that:
- The “right to free transit” takes precedent over the rights of freedom to expression and assembly.
- As such, from now on, any demonstration must be approved by the government.
- Demonstrations that do not receive government approval will be dispersed.
The most important aspect of this ruling is that it concerns itself entirely with peaceful demonstrations/protests/concentrations. Violent protests are an entirely different demon, and there are mechanisms for dealing with them. Prior to this judgement, the government had no legal recourse to disperse peaceful protests. Article 68 of the constitution guarantees the right to peaceful demonstration. However, with this ruling, this is no longer the case: the government can now legally crack down on peaceful demonstrations.
The ruling gives rise to a number of deeply troubling questions. Who will decide which protests are allowed, and which are not? Who will oversee this decision? Will the decision fall upon a single person, or a group of people? How far in advance do these requests have to be made? What information is required when filing a request to protest? What exactly constitutes “a concentration, demonstration or public reunion”? How many people must be present for any of these definitions to be met? Will the government order all non-sanctioned peaceful protests dispersed, always?
This ruling is a blatant assault on a fundamental human right. Democracy cannot function without the scrutiny provided by the guarantee to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Each and every one of us has the right to our own thoughts, and the right to express those thoughts peacefully in any manner we choose. This is a cornerstone of a free and democratic society.
Upon reading the ruling, I was immediately reminded of this quote by John F. Kennedy:
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.