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The Right of Peaceful Assembly Online: Research Pack

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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 Centre for Not-for-Profit Law. The event was organised within the framework of the 'Greater protection and standards setting: United Nations' project, managed by the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), in turn made possible by the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), and was 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 practiced 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. 

This research informed our submission to the UN Human Rights Committee's Draft General Comment No. 37 on Article 21 (Right of Peaceful Assembly), which you can read here. 

In March 2020, Sharath Srinivasan presented on the submission to the UN Human Rights Committee at a special workshop in Glion, Switzerland. 

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