The Right of Peaceful Assembly Online

The Right of Peaceful Assembly Online: Research Pack

This Research Pack, on the right of peaceful assembly online, is the outcome of an interdisciplinary collaboration between staff and students at Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights and the University of East Anglia Law School.

We initially produced this research as background for an expert meeting convened in December 2019 at the University of Cambridge to inform the drafting of General Comment 37 on the Right to Peaceful Assembly.

We were delighted that this expert meeting enabled the renewal of long-standing partnerships – including with Professor Christof Heyns, a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the Committee’s Rapporteur in drafting General Comment 37 – as well as the creation of new ones – such as with the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law. The event was organized within the framework of the ‘Greater protection and standards setting: United Nations’ project, managed by the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), in turn made possible by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), and funded by the Government of Sweden.

We are equally delighted to make this research available to wider publics through publishing it as a Research Pack. We wish in particular to extend our thanks to the student research team, led skilfully by Eleanor Salter, who provided clear insight into a nebulous and challenging topic. The team was compromised of post-graduates across a range of diverse fields, departments and the two universities, and they admirably produced this detailed Research Pack in a matter of weeks. The interdisciplinary spirit of this project has been invaluable in distilling the many debates on the right of peaceful assembly online — be they legal, technical, political or sociological. 

There are many contemporary, technology-driven challenges to traditional interpretations of human rights, and the right of peaceful assembly is no exception. This Research Pack aims to contribute to interpretations of the right of assembly by considering how new technologies and the increasingly digitally-mediated nature of interactions problematise existing understandings of the way in which individuals intentionally gather together with others. A question that runs through our research is the role for states and private companies in the non-interference in and facilitation of online assembly. We also disentangle some of the theoretical debates around publicly-accessible but privately-owned spaces, presence and participation, temporality and peacefulness with regard to online assemblies and provide a range of empirical evidence to inform these debates. A consideration of the right to freedom of assembly as practised online has implications for the right to freedom of assembly face-to-face. This makes this Research Pack’s contribution multi-directional, informing the right to gather in all forms. 

The use of information and communication technologies can help activists and protesters coordinate peaceful assemblies, and it can provide spaces for gatherings that transcend the constraints of location and time. But technology also brings threats to the right of assembly, including denials of access, the chilling effects resulting from new and exacerbated forms of surveillance and discrimination, and interference obscured by digital mediation. We hope this Research Pack presents a useful contribution to the work of academics and human rights practitioners working to understand and support the embodied exercise of the right of assembly in the different and often hybrid spaces in which it occurs.


UN Human Rights Committee publishes interpretation on the right of peaceful assembly, supported by CGHR research.

The UN Human Rights Committee has recently published its official interpretation on the right of peaceful assembly (Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)) in General Comment 37.

Recent developments, including the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter, underline the importance of this landmark document. The General Comment clarifies how the term ‘peaceful assembly’ shall be understood. Crucially,  it defined the scope of assembly as applying to both physical meetings and virtual online gatherings. The Human Rights Committee also elaborated extensive government obligations with regards to the right. 

In drafting General Comment 37, the Human Rights Committee consulted far and wide. As part of this process, CGHR built upon its longstanding collaboration with Professor Christof Heyns at the University of Pretoria, a member of the committee and the Rapporteur on General Comment 37. CGHR collaborated with researchers at the University of East Anglia Law School to create a research pack outlining six key dimensions of the right to peaceful assembly as practised online in particular. Then, together with the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law, CGHR and the UEA Law School held an expert workshop in Cambridge in December 2019 to discuss these issues with academics, policymakers, human rights practitioners and members of the UN Human Rights Committee, including ProfessorHeyns.

‘It is a fundamental human right for individuals to join a peaceful assembly to express themselves, to celebrate, or to air grievances. Together with other rights related to political freedom, it constitutes the very foundation of a democratic society, in which changes can be pursued through discussion and persuasion, rather than use of force,’ Heyns said on the occasion of the published interpretation.t. 

‘Everyone, including children, foreign nationals, women, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees, can exercise the right of peaceful assembly, which may take many forms: in public and in private spaces, outdoors, indoors and online,’ he added.

The full text of General Comment 37 is now available in English online.

Research by Ella McPherson, Sharath Srinivasan, Eleanor Salter, Katja Achermann, Camille Barras, Allysa Czerwinsky, Bronwen Mehta and Muznah Siddiqui (University of Cambridge) and Michael Hamilton, Suzanne Dixon and Jennifer Young (University of East Anglia) 

 November 2019