Student Conflict – Amnesty International Canada Francophone is Seriously Concerned about Infringements on the Right to Protest

Monday, April 23, 2012

Amnesty International is calling on the Quebec government to find a peaceful resolution to the student conflict and to stop resorting to methods that may infringe on freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.

We’ve become aware of a growing number of journalistic reports, eyewitness testimonies and accounts describing police tactics during demonstrations, methods of arrests, acts of vandalism and other forms of violence in some cities and universities in Quebec.

This information leads us to believe that the approach taken to ensure security during demonstrations has violated some of the fundamental rights associated with peaceful protest and due process, notably the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association, as well the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest.

Université du Québec à Montreal professor Paul Bélanger was beaten with a police baton, Friday, April 20th, while he was protesting peacefully outside the Montreal Convention Centre: ‘As soon as the police announced that the demonstration was illegal, they charged at us. I don’t run as fast as the young students, which doesn’t mean that I was resisting the police,’ explains Paul Bélanger. ‘The population has the right to protest without being attacked by law enforcement.’ M. Bélanger has filed a complaint against the police service of Montréal concerning his treatment.

We know very well that governments and police bear a great responsibility for the safety of the demonstrations that punctuate the student conflict. Governments must guarantee the safety of people participating in peaceful protest and other public activities.

We unequivocally condemn assaults, vandalism and other acts of violence that have been perpetrated by some individuals. The police have a duty to prevent such criminal acts and to stop and charge people on reasonable and probable grounds.

Nevertheless, with respect to international human rights law, it is essential that security measures respect the rights associated with peaceful demonstrations. Amnesty International worries that the tactics employed by police forces in response to certain violent incidents and peaceful protest, as well as the security measures adopted by some universities, raise troubling questions about respect for these fundamental rights: excessive use of force by police authorities, mass and possibly arbitrary arrests, intimidation and profiling by security forces on university campuses.

‘The government must, through its words and its actions, reaffirm its commitment to respecting the right of freedom of association, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest,’ says Béatrice Vaugrante, director general of Amnesty International.

We also note a turn toward the criminalization of public protest through injunctions that force students to return to class. Although legal, these injunctions may infringe upon the right of association and expression of students on strike. We are also concerned about the questionable recourse to the Highway Safety Code that could interfere with the right to protest peacefully.

Lastly, Amnestie Internationale Canada Francophone recognizes the right of demonstrators to wish to peacefully protect their right to education. Amnesty voices its concern about the tuition fee increase, which threatens universal access to tertiary education, as understood in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which Canada has ratified.