Democracy Lab

Fighting for the Public Square

Countries around the world, both democratic and authoritarian, are cracking down on freedom of assembly. It's time to push back.

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." In Swedish, this anxiety disorder is called torgskräck, or "fear of the square."

In cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares. 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, which has become famous in recent years as a hub of protest activity. (In the photo above, an anti-Mubarak protester attaches an Egyptian flag to the barbed wire surrounding Tahrir Square in 2011.) Similarly, in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, the only public square in Kampala. 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.

To a certain extent, this is nothing new. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for his provocative discussions in the Athenian agora. But in the wake of the "Color Revolutions" in the former Soviet Union, the Arab Awakening, and the current wave of protests sweeping the world, an increasing number of governments are using the law to restrict peaceful assemblies. 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.

This phenomenon is occurring in countries across the political spectrum. In 2012, autocratic Azerbaijan was criticized for adopting a law that imposes $10,000 fines on participants in unauthorized assemblies. In 2013, the democratic Spanish government proposed a bill that included fines up to $830,000 on participants of unauthorized protests near parliament. Yielding to popular pressure, the government backtracked slightly, lowering the proposed maximum fine to approximately $41,000. The imposition of fines on unauthorized protesters contradicts international best practices, whether or not the country is a long-standing democracy.

On the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., assemblies that exceed 24 consecutive hours or seven consecutive days are considered illegal. It is also unlawful to sleep or lie down between sunset and sunrise, or to set up or store sleeping bags, tents, or shelter of any kind. In 2011, a congressional committee launched an investigation of the National Park Service, claiming that it ignored federal law by allowing Occupy protestors to camp and kill "newly planted grass."

Autocratic governments are not the only ones use these precedents to avoid addressing constraints on civil society. In March 2014, Clare Short, a former U.K. cabinet official who chairs the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, dismissed concerns about legislation with devastating impact on the human rights community in Ethiopia. According to the Rt. Hon. Short, there is "a serious problem of double standards," noting that "removing the Occupy protesters from outside St Paul's Cathedral by force in my own country hardly raised a murmur." Ms. Short's response drew significant criticism, but it illustrates how restrictive practices by democratic nations reverberate internationally.

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 international law.

To bolster international norms, the UNHRC has adopted several resolutions on peaceful assembly. These resolutions, however, are increasingly contested and limited in scope. Accordingly, the special rapporteur, the UNHRC, and other global bodies must continue to develop international norms governing freedom of assembly. But norm development cannot stop there. Regional bodies, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, must develop norms at the regional level. In addition, civil society in the Global South must press their governments to support civic space and civil society, noting that India and South Africa recently aligned themselves with countries including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Belarus on civil society issues.

Second, governments must reform their national laws and practices. International norms have little impact if they are not enshrined at the national level. Democratic nations must lead by example, revising their laws and practices to safeguard civic space and to avoid charges of hypocrisy. In addition, countries such as Ukraine have expressed interest in conforming their legislation to international standards. 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.

The international community should also support the creation of a global network of independent, professionally trained protest monitors -- similar to the election monitors that already operate around the world. In addition, civil society should develop a toolkit on how the international community can help people on the frontlines when violations occur. Options could include "communications" by U.N. special rapporteurs, emergency support through the multilateral Lifeline initiative, diplomacy, and trial monitoring, while recognizing that the international community must follow the lead of in-country colleagues to determine what would be helpful in a particular context.

The teenage years of the 21st century have become an era of protest. Cornerstone concepts of civic space are being debated, developed, and, at times, violently contested. Citizens are demanding democracy, dignity, and development. In response, governments have come down with severe cases of agoraphobia. Through a holistic response encompassing international, national, and frontline actions, it is possible to contain this global pandemic.



Conflict of Interest

Chadian peacekeepers may be leaving the Central African Republic, but will the war-torn country ever really be free of its meddling northern neighbor?

On Saturday, March 29, Chadian troops opened fire on a market in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). The soldiers drove into one of the capital's northern neighborhoods, purportedly to guard some of the city's last remaining Muslims residents. When they arrived, the force sent a hail of bullets into the market, killing 30 and wounding hundreds. The soldiers have claimed that they were responding to a grenade attack, but a U.N. investigator who spoke with witnesses reported that the peacekeepers fired "indiscriminately" and "without provocation" on the civilian population.

Initial reports suggested that the attackers may have been Chadian special forces, which operate outside the scope of the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission currently operating in the CAR. (The U.N. Security Council paved the way for the AU force, as well as the deployment of French troops, in December.) Yet the fallout from the incident has still affected international intervention in the country. On April 3, Chad announced it would be withdrawing its troops from the AU peacekeeping effort. In a statement, the Chadian government decried a "gratuitous and malicious" campaign to blame its soldiers for "all the suffering in CAR."

The announced departure is significant. Chad has played a major role in the international intervention in CAR, and its 850 soldiers will be missed as boots on the ground. Yet Chad's parting will also relieve the peacekeeping force of soldiers who have often undermined the effort to stabilize a country that has been immersed in terrible, inter-religious fighting for more than a year.

The Bangui market attack is only the latest incident in which Chadian soldiers have been implicated in abuses. The allegations -- ranging from aiding Seleka rebels, the coalition of Muslim militias that took up arms against the CAR government in late 2012, to indiscriminately attacking civilians -- have called into question the fitness of Chadian soldiers to serve as peacekeepers. They also speak to a broader criticism that Chad has been meddling in its southern neighbor's affairs for the Chadian government's own strategic purposes.

These concerns emerged early in the CAR conflict. In December 2012, Chadian troops were deployed as part of an initial regional peacekeeping mission, known as FOMAC. The mission, which also included soldiers from Angola, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo, was mandated with protecting the government of former President François Bozizé against the Seleka who, at that point, had captured a number of towns in the CAR's north and were marching toward Bangui.

By January 2013, peacekeepers had effectively halted the rebel offensive at the town of Damara, some 44 miles north of Bangui. Yet the détente did not last. On March 21, FOMAC forces -- mostly Chadians -- willingly retreated, allowing the Seleka an open corridor to the capital. On March 24, the rebels captured Bangui, installing their leader, Michel Djotodia, as president after Bozizé fled.

Under Djotodia's new administration, Chadian peacekeepers, still purportedly stationed to pacify sectarian attacks, were implicated in a crackdown against Bozizé loyalists. In a monitoring report, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documented collusion between Chadian FOMAC troops and Seleka fighters in attacks against Christian civilians and anti-balaka, an equally brutal network of Christian civil-defense militias initially set up to protect towns and villages from the Muslim rebels. In one instance in December 2013, peacekeepers and rebels went door to door in Bangui, rounding up and killing suspected opposition fighters.

Chadian forces "have at least assisted Seleka leaders if not actively participated in some killings," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who is currently based in Bangui, said in an interview.

The allegations have fueled animosity toward men who are supposed to be part of a force for good. On Dec. 23, 2013, scores of demonstrators had taken to the streets of Bangui to protest Chad's continued involvement in their country. They held up signs that read "No Chadians in Bangui" and "No to the Chadian army." Chadian soldiers responded by firing live ammunition into the angry crowd, killing at least one person and injuring several others.

To those loyal to Bozizé, "[Chadian forces] and Seleka are one and the same, and they blame Chad...for what Seleka did," Bouckaert said.


While Chad's involvement in the CAR in part reflects Chadian President Idriss Déby's efforts to position his country as a regional power, it also serves more odious tactical aims. Déby, who has been in office for 23 years, has a lengthy history of interfering in the affairs of the CAR. The Chadian president has alternatively propped up and sabotaged successive CAR governments in a long-term strategy to ensure a pliable administration in Bangui.

For instance, Déby helped keep CAR President Ange-Félix Patassé, who served from 1993 to 2003, in power by sending troops to protect him from several coup attempts. Yet when Bozizé, then an upstart army chief of staff, threatened Patassé's rule, Déby switched his allegiance, offering Bozizé's rebels refuge in southern Chad. As president, Bozizé also relied on Chadian soldiers to form the bulk of his presidential guard. This proved to be a miscalculation, given Chad's slippery, shifting alliances in the CAR: As Seleka militias bore down on the capital last year, the presidential guard, like the Chadian peacekeepers, allegedly put up little resistance. Bozizé has also claimed that Chadian special forces aided the Seleka during the offensive against his government; Chadian officials deny the accusations.

Chad has several overlapping interests in the CAR. Paramount is oil. Chad's future energy supply depends on the CAR neglecting to develop its own oil interests: Chad's main oil field straddles the border, and thanks to a quirk of geology, supply would drop should the CAR start extracting from its side.

"With no functioning army, gendarmerie or police force in the CAR, Déby knows that there will never be any serious development in the north, especially in the area near Chad's border, where both countries sit on top of oil reserves," said David Smith, director of Okapi Consulting, which works to bolster local African media networks, and a long-time observer of the region. "If the CAR did the same, and they've been trying to do so in fits and starts, they'll be tapping into Chad's biggest foreign currency earner, and that would put a serious strain on Déby's ability to arm his military."

Another factor is Déby's own security. Over the years, the long-sitting president has had to combat a series of rebel insurgencies, some of which have used northern CAR as a launch point for attacks. Deploying his army in the CAR secures his southern border.

In January 2014, amid continued violence between rogue Seleka elements, which were aligned with government forces, and anti-Balaka militias, Djotodia agreed to follow Patassé and Bozizé into exile. In yet another example of Chad's close involvement in the CAR, those delicate exit negotiations, conducted under the auspices of the regional Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), were held in N'Djamena -- the capital of Chad. Déby's personal intervention was crucial in getting Djotodia to agree to step down.


Since Djotodia left office, the CAR has become even more lawless. The ascendance of interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, who took office in January, has failed to alleviate sectarian tensions. Vicious reprisals by the anti-balaka against the country's Muslim population for their perceived support of the Muslim rebels have left thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. The country is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis affecting almost the entire population.

In response to ongoing sectarian violence, the U.N. Security Council is gearing up to deploy some 12,000 international peacekeepers within the next six months. The force is expected to be approved at a meeting in the second week of April. Explaining the mission's main goals, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for "more troops and police to protect people. More efforts to get a peace process under way. More support for President Samba-Panza to get the government functioning again. More funding for humanitarian assistance. Accountability for perpetrators of sectarian cleansing and other grave violations of human rights."

Chad's announced withdrawal of its peacekeepers might save U.N. planners from a difficult decision about whether to incorporate some of the very soldiers that have helped sustain the current conflict.

Chad removed its first contingent of soldiers on Friday, April 4, but a full drawdown is by no means certain. It issued a similar threat in April 2013 to pull some 2,000 troops out of the international effort to subdue Islamist rebels in Mali, but did not do so. Nor is there any word on whether Chad will evacuate its special forces.

Either way, it's unlikely that Chad's strongman will ever completely abandon his interventions in the CAR. "The role of Déby in CAR is very complicated," said Human Rights Watch's Bouckaert. "Déby holds so many cards in his hand that he can do as he pleases in CAR."