Two United Nations independent experts on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and of opinion and expression today voiced concern over demonstrations in Quebec on 24 May, reportedly involving serious acts of violence and detention of up to 700 protesters.
They also urged the federal and provincial governments of Canada and Quebec to fully respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association of students affected by two new pieces of legislation. In the last four months students have been demonstrating in Montreal and throughout Quebec against the increase of tuition fees which they consider abusive and unjustifiable.
The Special Rapporteurs made clear that they are in touch with the Government, which has promised it will clarify these issues.
“The recently adopted legislation unduly restricts students’ rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly in Quebec,” warned the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai. “It is regrettable that the authorities have resorted to a restrictive approach, rather than seeking dialogue and mediation to resolve the current situation.”
Mr. Kiai drew attention to the new Law no. 78, underscoring that “it shifts the burden of proof and further burdens student associations, and thus unduly interferes with freedom of association.” In his view, “the fines imposed in the law of up to 125.000 Canadian dollars (122.000 US$ approx.) are disproportionate and may deter students from exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”
Regarding the new regulation adopted by the City of Montreal, Mr. Kiai said that the authorities have to facilitate all forms of peaceful assembly, including spontaneous assemblies. “Any regulation aiming at respecting the right of peaceful assembly should include a presumption in favour of holding peaceful assemblies, which implies an assumption of the peaceful character of any assembly as long as its organizers have peaceful intentions.”
“While it is legitimate for the authorities to be informed of the itinerary of a demonstration to protect protesters, it is crucial that this prerogative is not misused to restrict the legitimate right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” he added.
For the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, “peaceful assemblies constitute a form of expression, a way to collectively express legitimate grievances.” In his view, “individuals should also be able to wear clothing of their choosing at such events, as long as it does not harm the rights of others or aim at eluding one’s duties in the context of peaceful assembly.”