Protests – the necessary evil?

Some 17 students representing the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) were hospitalised last evening following clashes with the police at yet another protest march against the controversial private medical college SAITM. To add insult to injury, an unconfirmed number of students were taken into custody, according to the Police.

It is an unfortunate sign of the times that few among the citizenry will find sympathy for the injured students, as protest after protest held by them over this issue have not only greatly inconvenienced the public but have also cost the country economically in terms of traffic congestions and the resultant loss in productivity. Many will point out that the IUSF was “asking for it” or that it “had it coming”. And as fundamentally wrong and undemocratic it is, it’s increasingly easier to defend that position, given that their tactics, to put it mildly, all but define public nuisance.

That said, however, the right to protest is something that any self-respecting democracy should at least pretend to uphold. In most civilised societies, the right to peaceful protest is a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of speech. In Sri Lanka, it is recognised as a fundamental right. While there is an argument to be made that the Government shouldn’t cower in the face of politically motivated protests that are clearly organised to inconvenience the ruling party, this Government, which came into power on a platform of good governance, should at least on the surface appear to recognise the people’s right to take to the streets.

Historically, protests have often inspired positive social change and the advancement of human rights, and they continue to help define and protect civic space in all parts of the world. Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed citizenry. They strengthen representative democracy by enabling direct participation in public affairs. They enable individuals and groups to express dissent and grievances, to share views and opinions, to expose flaws in governance and to publicly demand that the authorities and other powerful entities rectify problems and are accountable for their actions. This is especially important for those whose interests are otherwise poorly represented or marginalised.

The Government and public too often treat protests as either an inconvenience to be controlled or a threat to be extinguished but the reality is the right to protest formally involves the exercise of numerous fundamental human rights, and is essential for securing all human rights. Participating in protests enables all people to individually and collectively express dissent and seek to influence and strengthen governments’ policymaking and governing practices, as well as the actions of other powerful entities in society.

The right to protest embodies the exercise of a number of indivisible, interdependent and interconnected human rights, in particular the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to strike, the right to take part in cultural life, as well as the rights to life, privacy, liberty and security of the person and the right to freedom from discrimination. It’s high time we remembered that.