srinivas1_SERGEI GAPONAFP via Getty Images_belarus protest Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

The Right to Protest Is Under Siege

From Algeria to Zimbabwe, governments are employing ever more sophisticated and aggressive tactics to curtail people’s ability to protest. This fundamental right – a pillar of social and political progress – is being threatened in four main ways.

LONDON – Autocratic leaders often seek new ways to undermine the right to protest, because they know protesting can be an extraordinarily powerful force for political and social change. Over the past decade, protests have toppled autocrats, forced governments and corporations to recognize the climate emergency, given a voice to workers suffering under unfair economic systems, and urged reforms to address police brutality and structural racism.

As Peter Mutasa – president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which has protested this year for better working conditions – has observed, protests are often the “only countervailing power and force” to repressive governments and the only way for marginalized people to gain access to public services. And even in contexts where they have not yet achieved their goals, protests have shaken entrenched power structures.

In Belarus, for example, peaceful protests led by women (with the active involvement of broad sections of Belarusian society, including artists and trade unionists) have continued since August’s rigged presidential election. In Thailand, protesters’ ongoing demonstrations for democratic reforms have highlighted a crucial debate about the monarchy’s constitutional role, which until recently was off-limits for public discussion. And protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May made structural racism a central issue in the US presidential election campaign.

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