‘Deal with Me, Here I Stand!’: Presence, Participation and the Equal Protection of Online Assemblies (2022)

Hamilton, M., McPherson, E. and Srinivasan, S. (2022) ‘“Deal with me, here I stand!”: presence, participation and the equal protection of online assemblies’, in Viljoen, F., Fombad, C., Tladi, D., Skelton, A. and Killander, M. (eds) A Life Interrupted: Essays in Honour of the Lives and Legacies of Christof Heyns. Pretoria: Pretoria University Law Press, pp. 327–346.


‘Deal with me, here I stand!’ were words that Christof Heyns used to convey the dramainherent in many forms of assembly and protest. Central to so much of Christof’s work – including his doctoral research on civil disobedience in South Africa and his captivation withthe example of Mahatma Gandhi in struggles against injustice and colonialism – was thesense of urgency, even of crisis, that such principled action can usher forth against theseeming unassailability of state power in all its forms.

Given that social action is today increasingly mediated by information and communication technologies (ICTs), this chapter reflects upon what it means to stand, or totake a stand, in a digitally mediated world. In particular, the chapter overviews some of theideas that fed into Christof’s ground-breaking work as the UN Human Rights Committee’sRapporteur in drafting General Comment 37 on the right of peaceful assembly. Premised on a recognition of the blended and hybrid nature of online and offlineactivity, the General Comment ultimately recognized that the right of peaceful assemblyenshrined in Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) should not

only protect gatherings in physical spaces (whether publicly or privately owned), but should also afford protection to assemblies in online, or digitally mediated, spaces.

This chapter outlines the journey that led to this highly significant advance. It charts the model of consultation and engagement that Christof pioneered during his human rights work with the United Nations (UN), and which characterised the drafting of the General Comment. It then flags two particularly salient aspects of the right of assembly in online spaces, recognizing that these remain highly relevant to the future development and interpretation of the Covenant in this context – first, threshold questions relating to the notions of presence and participation, and second, challenges relating to the protection of assemblies deriving from the particular logics of online spaces and the corresponding threats that may inhibit or prevent assemblies from materializing, for some groups more than others. We turn, in closing, to one particular hallmark of Christof’s enduring legacy – his indefatigable commitment tocollaborative and inclusive human rights work.