Research Project

Freedom of Assembly

Why Freedom of Assembly? 

People gathering together is often the beginning of much of what makes society and politics tick: movements, associations, meetings, clubs, unions, political protests and rallies.

This freedom to assemble is also recognised as a right of peaceful assembly under international and domestic human rights law. The UN Human Rights Committee puts it this way: “The fundamental human right of peaceful assembly enables individuals to express themselves collectively and to participate in shaping their societies. The right of peaceful assembly is important in its own right, as it protects the ability of people to exercise individual autonomy in solidarity with others.” 

Peaceful assemblies have played a key role in bringing about many of the major social and political changes over the last century – from women’s suffrage, decolonisation in India and civil rights in the USA, to the end of apartheid and the fall of authoritarian communist rule. Assemblies routinely advance the cause of minorities including LGBTQI+ groups and indigenous peoples and put planetary survival squarely on the global agenda. Indeed, notwithstanding pandemic restrictions, assemblies have recently played a major role in settings as diverse as Hong Kong, Belarus and the Black Lives Matter protests. 

The importance of assemblies, however, extends beyond achieving particular ends. For every historically momentous assembly, there are vastly more mundane and long-forgotten assemblies. These too are important since the very act of gathering together (face-to-face or digitally-mediated) offers opportunities to build solidarity, collective identities and shared causes. Moreover, many assemblies serve cultural or recreational ends and do not pursue any overtly political agendas. 

In recent years, researchers and students at CGHR have worked with colleagues in other universities and at the United Nations to advance academic thought and normative policy work on the right of peaceful assembly.  This began with a collaboration with UN Human Rights Committee member and longtime centre collaborator Christof Heyns, to provide research support for the Committee’s drafting of General Comment 37 on the freedom of assembly – a type of report produced by the Human Rights Committee from time to time to expand and reflect on how to interpret and promote a particular right.  

At CGHR, we were particularly focused on how this right is protected, enacted and threatened when mediated digitally across space and/or time.  Along with a student research group working across Cambridge and the University of East Anglia (UEA), and our colleague Dr Michael Hamilton of UEA, we produced a research pack, co-hosted an expert meeting, and published a submission informing the development of General Comment 37. At the UN, CGHR Research Associate Thomas Probert worked closely with Christof in his role as rapporteur on the General Comment.  

Expanding on this work to think more broadly about this right, the next stage has been the development of The Oxford Handbook of Peaceful Assembly, which Sharath and Thomas co-edited and for which Sharath, Ella and Thomas have written chapters.  This is the first edited collection written on this particular right, and it is published by Oxford University Press.