Is freedom of assembly a human right?
Yes. Freedom of assembly is a human right. This means that it is a right that every individual possesses for the only reason of being a human being.
Freedom of assembly refers to the right of individuals and groups to come together for a common purpose, either to express their views publicly, exchange ideas or hold a peaceful protest.
The right to freedom of assembly can be enjoyed by every person; individuals, groups, associations (whether registered or unregistered), religious bodies, legal entities, and trade unions. It also extends to children, refugees, stateless persons, temporary visitors, migrants, and foreign nationals. Everyone regardless of ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, language, social or marital status has this right.
This right is protected in Nigerian law and internationally.
What does peaceful assembly mean?
An assembly is deemed peaceful if its organizers have professed peaceful intentions and the conduct of the assembly is generally non-violent.
Freedom of assembly can be exercised in various and diverse ways.
- For example, the right to freely assemble can be exercised by organizing or participating in any of the following:
- Seminars such as business seminars or educational seminars.
- Religious gatherings like the SHILOH convention organized yearly by Living Faith Church (Winners Chapel) and other similar gatherings.
- Assembly on private property such as House parties and Family parties.
- Enlightenment programs such as the Lassa Fever Enlightenment program organized by various health institutions.
- Publicity Events like The Lagos International Trade fairs.
- Campaigns (political or religious) such as the APC presidential campaign of 2019.
- Peaceful demonstrations or rallies like the Occupy Nigeria protests that held in major cities in Nigeria between 2nd to 14th of January 2012 (1 week and 5 days). Another example is the #ENDSARS Protests that held from 8th October to 20th October 2020 involving the youths in Lagos, Abuja, Edo, Delta, Port Harcourt, and other states in Nigeria.
- Peaceful protests (by Associations, Trade unions or groups): For example, the BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) protests that started in April 2014 and continued till 2017 in Nigeria.
- Processions or parade such as the Catholic procession every Easter.
Also, other laws regulate the right to engage in gatherings, strike actions and protests:
Public Order Act 1979: The Public Order Act is primarily concerned with the regulation of assemblies and protests in Nigeria. However, most sections of the act were abolished and it is important to note that a notification is no longer a requirement to organize an assembly (protest or rally) unless the organizers require police protection during the assembly.
This was based on a decision of the Court of Appeal in its 2007 judgment All Nigeria Peoples Party v. Inspector-General of Police, where Justice Adekeye held that:
“The Public Order Act should be promulgated to complement sections 39 and 40 of the Constitution in context and not to stifle or cripple it. A rally or placard carrying demonstration has become a form of expression of views on current issues affecting government and the governed in a sovereign state. It is a trend recognized and deeply entrenched in the system of governance in civilized countries – it will not only be primitive but also retrogressive if Nigeria continues to require a pass to hold a rally. We must borrow a leaf from those who have trekked the rugged path of democracy and are now reaping the dividend of their experience…”
The Trade Union Act Cap T14 LFN 2004: Section 43 of the Act makes it lawful for any member or person acting on behalf of a trade union to engage in strike actions or protests.
The Child’s Right Act 2003: Particularly Section 6 of the Act provides for the right of children to assemble as follows:
“Every child has a right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly in conformity with the law and in accordance with the necessary guidance and directions of his parents or guardians.”
There are regional agreements between various countries in Africa and West Africa that provide for the right to freedom of expression include:
African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR): Article 11 provides as follows:
“Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.”
The ACHPR has been adopted as national law in Nigeria by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act Laws of Federation 2004. This means that the Nigerian Courts must respect the African Charter in Nigeria.
Also, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Article 21 provides that:
“The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
So what does these definitions mean for you? The following section explains that above definition.
The government has a duty to respect, promote, protect and fulfil human rights. This includes:
This is the responsibility of the Nigerian state and all the public bodies that form part of it, such as the police, ministries, local authorities, etc. This is because Nigeria has signed international agreements which must be followed.
For Example: Nigeria has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the African Charter and other international treaties mentioned above and has a duty of making laws in Nigeria be in line with those standards.
Freedom of peaceful assembly can serve many purposes, including (but not limited to) the expression of views and the defence of common interests, celebration, commemoration, picketing and protest. The exercise of this freedom can have both symbolic and instrumental significance and can be an important strand in the maintenance and development of culture and the preservation of minority identities.
The exercise of the right to freedom of assembly will directly translate to more open civic spaces where human rights violations are on the decrease and people and especially journalists are not unlawfully detained for criticising government as is sometimes the practice in Nigeria.
By protecting and promoting the right to freedom of assembly, we invariably strengthen our democracy by holding our leaders accountable because people are freely allowed to criticise the policies of the government through peaceful protests. Conversely, if peaceful protests are disallowed by Government, it gives the government arbitrary powers and will amount to human rights violation.
In addition to serving the interests of democracy, the ability to freely assemble will foster the enforcement of other related rights like freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.