As citizens gather in city squares from Caracas to Kiev to Cairo, governments are showing symptoms of agoraphobia, which literally means fear of an agora or “place of assembly,” according to Douglas Rutzen and Brittany Grabel of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law.
This phenomenon is occurring in countries across the political spectrum, but in cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares, they write for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.
For example, in Bahrain, the government bulldozed Pearl Square to stymie the country’s 2011 reformist movement and prevent citizens from assembling there. In other countries, governments have erected physical barriers to restrict access to civic space. In Egypt, the military recently erected ten-foot iron gates to control access to Tahrir Square, while in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, Kampala’s only public square. On March 20, 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, restricting access to the digital agora.
Supplementing physical and electronic barriers, many governments are erecting legal barriers to civic space. In January 2014, Cambodia issued a blanket ban on all public gatherings. Days later, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine enacted legislation imposing five year prison sentences on protestors if they blocked government buildings, and allowing the authorities to seize the cars of people participating in “Automaidan” protests. Shortly after, the Venezuelan government brought criminal charges, including arson and conspiracy charges to imprison citizens engaged in peaceful assemblies. These are but a few recent examples of the global agoraphobia pandemic.
According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than twenty countries have recently considered or enacted legal restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.
Agoraphobia is a global contagion, and no country is immune. To address this pandemic, international institutions, governments, and civil society must embrace a holistic treatment plan.
First, global and regional institutions must enhance norms protecting peaceful assembly. International norms on the freedom of assembly are just beginning to take shape. The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently established a U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of assembly. He has written three pioneering thematic reports, but his reports are not binding in international law. …..
Second, governments must reform their national laws and practices. International norms have little impact if they are not enshrined at the national level. …….Donor and experts with comparative expertise must be prepared to respond to appeals from countries requesting assistance. In addition, like-minded governments must increase their political support for multilateral initiatives, such as the Community of Democracies Working Group, which plays a critical role in mobilizing diplomatic engagement when restrictive laws are proposed.
Third, the international community must focus on frontlines. In many countries, security personnel receive limited or no training on how to manage protests in a peaceful, democratic manner. Under the auspices of the special rapporteur or another international body, an initiative should be launched to compile and share good practices, complemented by in-person training programs. …….