“Does Demonstration Amount To Assembly As Provided for Under the Law of Liberia: Whose Constitutional Rights Are Affected?”
MONROVIA-One of Liberia’s most celebrated Journalists, Frank Sainworla was among panellists to discuss a topic around demonstration in the Liberian society.
During his presentation, Mr. Sainworla carefully but also frankly presented his thoughts on the topic discussed.
He said Liberians seem to find it extremely difficult to cultivate the culture of tolerance and respect of the right to peaceful assembly.
Below is the full presentation of the trained Liberian journalist during Wednesday discussion.
Editor note: Views expressed here are that of Mr. Sainworla and not the New Republic Newspaper
Let me first say how honored I am to have been chosen from among thousands of others to serve as one of the panelists in this ICRPSD Speaker Series today to give my candid, professional and patriotic perspective on this very important topic: “Does Demonstration Amount to Assembly as Provided for Under the Law of Liberia—Whose Constitutional Rights Are Affected?”
As you correctly said in your letter of invitation, the right to assemble and hold demonstration is a “hot-button debate”.
Indeed, for the past 43 years, successive Liberian governments, including this current CDC regime, have been overwhelmed by what I call, demonstration phobia.
In a Journalistic piece I published in the local dailies on April 8, 2013, I warned that since the April 14, 1979 bloody rice riot, Liberians have continued to be haunted by their intolerant past.
It’s a contradiction, scary yet comical—my dear country, Liberia’s vicious cycle of intolerance. The merits/demerits of a demonstration apart, Liberians seem to find it extremely difficult to cultivate the culture of tolerance and respect of the right to peaceful assembly.
Notwithstanding the last four decades marred by a culture of violence, military coups and counter coups crowned by a fratricidal civil war, successive regimes have played to the same tunes that marred the political landscape. By the end of the war in 2003, some 250,000 lives had been lost.
Back in April 2013, when my article was widely published, there was a standoff between the former Unity Party government of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the then opposition CDC, now the new guards in power. I said then:
“Today, still not unshackled from this hangover, a big debate for and against a planned “peaceful” street demonstration in Monrovia on April 12, 2013 being organized by opposition politicians and civil society groups to denounce corruption, injustice abuse of power and alleged rights abuses.” Liberians Still Haunted By Their Intolerant Past – allAfrica.com
- Does demonstration amount to Assembly? Yes–because it’s a projection of citizens’ rights to exercise their freedom under the law and petition their leaders.
- Whose constitutional rights are affected? All—the demonstrators, those who are not part of it. Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly for the demonstrators; at the same time, it guarantees the right to freedom movement of others.
Demonstration in the eyes of Liberian law
Demonstration is defined by Cambridge Dictionary in this way: “An occasion when a group of people march or stand together to show that they disagree with or support something or someone…”
For Merriam Webster Dictionary the synonyms for Demonstration is: “rally, display, exhibition, a mass meeting for the purpose of displaying or arousing support for a cause or person.”
Without playing with semantics, demonstration and assembly are synonymous. Her is how Dictionary.com defines assembly: “an assembling or coming together of a number of persons, usually for a particular purpose.”
Now, in Chapter 3 of our Liberian constitution, which is our Bill of Rights, a demonstration is one of our fundamental rights, which is in consonance with basic international standards also guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights UDHR which Liberia was one of the original signatories after World War II in 1948.
Article 17 of the Liberian constitution says it emphatically: “All persons, at all times, in an orderly and peaceable manner, shall have the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives, to petition the Government or other functionaries for the redress of grievances and to associate fully with others or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions and other organizations.”
However, while citizens have right to demonstrate or peacefully assemble guaranteed under Article 17 of the constitution, the media and other prodemocracy groups need to educate people that rights are not absolute—where one’s right end, another’s right begins.
Also, one of the underlying principles of Human Rights is Interdependency. This means “Human rights violations are interconnected; loss of one right detracts from other rights. Similarly, promotion of human rights in one area supports other human rights.”
Right to freedom of movement
Be reminded that Article 13. a of the Liberian Constitution says: “Every person lawfully within the Republic shall have the right to move freely throughout Liberia, to reside in any part thereof and to leave therefrom subject however to the safeguarding of public security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.”
Remember also that Liberia is a State party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
June 7, 2019 COP “Save the State Protest” monitored by human rights organizations and CSOs in the country including Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia and the National Civil Society Council of Liberia.
It was learned that some 20 international observers were deployed to monitor the protest.
As clear indication of the demonstration phobia and hysteria still haunting us, one local newspaper headline read: “Scaring sign ahead of June 7 protest’
Fortunately, at the end of the day with the Liberia National Police deescalating the tensions—not being overzealous and serving the protesters with water—the steam was eventually taken out. And some of the bellicose hot-heads in the protest leadership had no other recourse but to be mellow. I came face-to-face with that reality when I decided to leave my newsroom and go up to the protest site on Capitol Hill to personally cover the event replacing my Reporter who was on the early morning and afternoon beat on that fateful June 7. There, I saw police officers serving water to thirsty protesters. FLASHBACK: Protesters and Police June 7 maturity hailed, despite petition presentation fiaso – News Public Trust
At the same time, Article 15 a. of the constitution also stipulates that the rights and freedom must be exercised responsibly: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with this Constitution.”
But as an independent professional Journalist and Liberian patriot, we must assess demonstrations or street protests within these two crucial local contexts.
- The spiraling culture of violence/mob justice and the need to be intentional about ending it
- And the repeated demonstration phobia by governments over the years, which have disgustingly turned a number of people into heroes that they don’t deserve to be. We saw it during the Tolbert, Doe, Taylor, Sirleaf regimes. And we’ve seen it even during the present CDC regime with the hysteria around the June 7, 2019 “Council of Patriots” COP “Save the state” protest”
Growing wave of political parties’ militant brigades
Ahead of the crucial 2023 presidential and legislative elections in less than 14 months from now, a mushrooming of demonstrations could be organized—some with good intent, others with sinister motive, while the trouble makers and vandals are looking for every opportunity to exploit such a situation.
Some things that can spark and/or acerbate tensions in the wake of planned protest: overzealousness of some state security forces, police and EPS; growing weaponizing of politics by both the ruling parties and opposition parties, with the consolidation of their militant brigades.
- We saw this with CDC party militants’ protest/demonstration at their HQ in Congo Town when people including the Police Deputy Inspector General was maltreated and sand (locally referred to as government farina) put in his mouth
- We also saw the bloody violent protest and counter protest by opposition ANC youth wing militants at the party’s Airfield shortcut HQ, with protesters using knives and machetes, several were woundedsome time ago.
Another key thing that needs to change-over-zealousness of some state security forces:
- Professionalize and de-politicize state security forces—by allowing merit to prevail over loyalty to individuals rather than the state by living up to professional code of practice
- Professionalize the Journalism field by ensuring that media practitioners scrupulously adhere to the code of conduct and ethics, putting them above partisan interest, where practicing journalists will be practicing journalists and practicing spin doctors will be practicing spin doctors
- Harmonize the various agencies of the national state security apparatus so as to avoid overlapping of functions
What should the Police do if the demonstrators are violent?
It must be emphatically stated here that while the Liberian Constitution guarantees the right to assemble, this assembly must be held peacefully under Article 17.
Leaders and organizers of demonstrations, political and others, are under patriotic obligation to provide civic education to their supporters on the importance of being peaceful at all times and do away with the alarming behavior of mob violence.
And the police and state security forces must do everything to exercise the utmost restraint even if demonstrators cross the line. They can do this by using a force proportionately.
However, let it be made clear here that under any democratic system the world over will serve ice cream to unruly and riotous demonstrators, who go about stoning innocent bystanders, smashing private citizens’ vehicles, vandalizing shops and engaging mob actions in the name of exercising their right to demonstrate.
To my Journalists colleagues, let us do more to put a spotlight on violent mob under the guise of exercising their right to demonstrate or protest. As we cover the many demonstrations we expect to witness in the coming weeks and months, we must clearly “let the chips fall where they may” in our coverage of protests.
If the Police use of teargas or even rubber bullet was triggered by the violent action of demonstrators, let it be said, because even the police have a right to life. If the demonstration was peaceful till the police unleased excessive force, let’s be keen on doing that.
Finally, the use of proportional force to crack down on violent riot even in the world’s biggest democracy is in line with the rule of law. Flashback in 2022 in the United States when the police had to use rubber bullet to quell one of many George Floyd protests.
US police use rubber bullet during George Floyd protest: https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/nation/2021/…
25/05/2021 · A rubber bullet is fired over a protester by police hidden by a cloud of tear gas on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Minneapolis. John Minchillo, AP It …