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What Oscar-nominated film ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ tells us about protest rights

How have developments in international human rights laws over the years have affected the right to protest?

Susan Wilding
25 April 2021, 12.01am
'The Trial of the Chicago 7' dramatises the court case of seven activists who protested the Vietnam War
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ is up for six Oscars at the Academy Awards, to be announced on 25 April. The film, which dramatises the trial of seven social activists who opposed the Vietnam War, sheds light on key issues about the right to protest. It has particular resonance today – as is shown by the fact it is reportedly one of Netflix’s most watched movies – when mass mobilisation is increasingly common across the globe.

The 1960s, like today, were marked by peaceful protests, sit-ins and strikes, in the United States and around the world. A youth-led counterculture embraced the civil rights movement and called for an end to the Vietnam War.

In 1968, seven activists led an anti-Vietnam protest in Chicago to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. The film follows the trial of the seven defendants, who were charged with conspiracy and inciting riots after violence erupted during the protest. As the charges against the seven are laid out, the audience becomes aware of various laws and standards that regulated protest in the United States at the time.

With the #BlackLivesMatter protests and other mass movements driving change and defining our time, how has international law changed since then? What do protest rights look like now?

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The film cites protest restrictions that have all been thoroughly addressed in the present day. Most recently, the Human Rights Committee, a group of independent experts who interpret the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, added a General Comment on the right to peaceful assembly and association. This broadens the scope of the right to protest and acts as a guiding principle to the 172 states that have ratified the convention.

In the film, three main restrictions to the right to peaceful assembly are raised during the trial. Compare then and now, and it’s clear there have been many changes in international law by means of the General Comment.

The need for permits

The film sees the seven activists accused of not having received the necessary permit for their protest. While many countries still require protesters to acquire permits, contemporary international law is clear: permission is not required. Peaceful assembly is a basic right that should always be recognised.

What’s more, in the film, the protest leaders’ application for permission to be within ‘sight and sound’ of the Democratic convention is denied, and the protest takes place blocks away from their targeted audience. General Comment No.37, issued in July last year, says “given the typically expressive nature of assemblies, participants must as far as possible be enabled to conduct assemblies within sight and sound of their target audience.” This broadening of the right to protest allows demonstrators to properly convey their message.

Isolated acts of violence by some participants should not be attributed to the organizers

Acts of violence

The protest leaders in the film are essentially held responsible for the violence that breaks out during the protests, despite the case later concluding the police were the violent party. This is common during peaceful protests; violence can be started by security forces or perpetrated by breakaway groups or factions, yet protest leaders are often held responsible. The Human Rights Committee addresses this by saying, “isolated acts of violence by some participants should not be attributed to the organizers or to the assembly as such”.

Often, allegations of violence are used by repressive governments to delegitimize protests and detract from protesters’ messages. For example, politicians seized on isolated instances of violence during the Black Lives Matter protests to undermine the main message. But last year’s General Comment is also clear on this, saying that the burden of proof of violence is on the authorities. The authorities must prove that participants were inciting others to use violence; or that such actions are likely to cause violence; or that the intentions of the participants are to use violence; or that violence is imminent. Isolated instances of violence are not sufficient to taint the entire protest as violent and thereby allow states to restrict the right to protest.

Use of tear gas

The use of non-lethal weapons against protesters, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, is one of the most concerning issues for present-day protesters.

The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks violations of civic freedoms across the world, shows that excessive use of force and detention of protesters are the most common tactics used by governments to restrict protest movements. In the film, force is misused to quell protests. However, the General Comment makes clear that only “minimum force” may be used against protesters and only when there is a “legitimate law enforcement purpose”, for example, to safely apprehend a violent individual. The comment clearly states “no further resort to force is permissible”.

The General Comment goes on to say that domestic law should not allow for the wanton and excessive use of force on a discriminatory basis, as was seen in the film, and as is still seen in many protests today.

In the present day, we see a number of cases where the right to peaceful assembly is limited or completely restricted in many places around the globe, including in democratic countries that have acceded to the international covenants protecting it. It is imperative that movements, citizens and activists know their rights and what the international legal framework sets out in order to better equip those who stand firm for democratic rights and to be able to advocate for the full protection of the right to assemble peacefully.

Click here for more information on the General Comment, and here for more information about CIVICUS and our toolkit for protesters

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