A Right to Violence?

By Isabella Royce
The Occupy Melbourne protests, 21 October 2011

This story is a part of our September focus on Violence – you can access more content from this issue here

By Isabella Royce

 Liberty and violence are commonly presented as morally irreconcilable in human rights discourse; surely a strong civil society cannot permit violence as a legitimate tool of social change.  The unravelling events in Egypt and acts of protest in Australia however, highlight the overlap between the right to protest, the adoption of violence in the realisation of these rights and the violent reactions of governments.

Retracing the events

 Egypt’s volatile road to civil liberty begins with the Arab Spring of 2011, when its armed forces overthrew president Mubarak in the wake of hundreds of thousands of protesters rallying against his rule. While high hopes were held for a peaceful transition to democracy, the period following Mubarak’s departure was followed by violent conflict.

The present conflict boils down to tensions between the transnational Islamic political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s armed forces. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected President and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood began his term in June 2012. While the Brotherhood has a tumultuous relationship with Egyptian nationalists and a history of engaging in political violence, they won all five national elections held since 2011, including Morsi’s election as president last year.

But the leader has since failed to win the support of the Egyptian people; his opponents accuse him of allowing Islamists to monopolise the government and of concentrating power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, unrest stems from his alleged mishandling of the economy and failure to deal with the residual issues that ignited the Arab Spring- namely human rights concerns and social injustice.

Following his refusal to “meet the demands of the Egyptian people,” Morsi was ousted by defence minister and army chief General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on 3 July 2013. The Islamist-drafted Constitution was suspended and warrants issued for the arrest of 300 officials of the Brotherhood.

By 5 July, thousands of pro-Morsi supporters had mobilised in protests against the so-called ‘military coup’. By 8 July peaceful dialogue was discarded for physical violence, with 57 Morsi loyalists killed and 480 wounded in Cairo.

By 26 July large-scale clashes erupted across the country between Morsi supporters and opponents, reaching a climax when supporters exchanged gunfire with security forces inside a Cairo mosque. Two days of bloodshed left over 700 dead although an official toll has been withheld.

The interim military government condemned the pro-Morsi protesters’ actions as “acts of terrorism” and authorised police to use live ammunition against them; the movement’s leaders urged supporters to take to the streets to fight against the “wave of terror” unleashed by security forces.

With the government alleging a prerogative to forcible control and Brotherhood supporters arguing their right to protest, the question thus arises; is there ever a right to violence?

The right to protest

 The right to protest is a long-recognised political freedom; enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR), as well as many international human rights covenants and conventions. A right to freedom of peaceful assembly is equally protected under international law under Article 20 of the UDHR and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR), while Article 25 provides for the right to engage in the democratic process  “without unreasonable restrictions.”

While we are fortunate enough in Australia to live in a stable democracy these rights have not been incorporated into domestic law and can thus be difficult to assert. That said, sections 15 and 16 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilitiesprovide for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Read together, these provide for a right to protest in Victoria.

This right is subject to the general law and “must be balanced against the rights and interests of others and of the community as a whole.” Above all, they must comply with “the protection of public safety, the maintenance of peace and the facilitation of fair and equal access to public areas.” But could violent protest in fact be in the interests of the community? These caveats appear in most international charters and conventions; challenges arise when reconciling these freedoms with the need to protect public rights and interests.

“Public safety” and “maintenance of peace” are sufficiently vague as to leave ultimate discretion of interpretation to the state. In construing Article 19 of the ICCPR, the United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed its reluctance to allow restrictions on freedom of expression and other rights for the purposes of national security and public order in the absence of detailed justifications by the state. The concern is that these exceptions to the right to protest could be invoked to protect government control over state machinery or, as is most often the case in the West, public debate.

The 2011 Occupy movement across Australian capital cities is a domestic example of the unstable state of Australia’s right to protest. The demonstrations saw hundreds of people take to the streets in peaceful protest against allegedly fundamental problems with Australian democracy and corporate greed. But scenes turned violent in Melbourne when up to 400 police officers used force to remove those peacefully assembled. Events spiralled into chaos and were labelled by many as ‘police brutality’.

Was this force deployed for “public safety” and the “maintenance of peace”? Assistant Police Commissioner Steve Fontana defended the actions and maintained protesters were warned to move, thus the force was necessary.

Violence as a tool for the realisation of rights

In the Occupy case, it seems the aggressive police action was an excessive response to peaceful protest. But does that mean the violent police response have been justified if demonstrators turned violent? The situation in Egypt presents a more dramatic backdrop but opens the discussion as to whether violence is always at odds with rights discourse.

The interim government has condemned Pro-Morsi protestors for engaging in ‘acts of terrorism’ due to their targeting of government buildings and religious monuments. In turn, demonstrators assert they are exercising their right to protest against militant state actions. The relationship between violent protest and forceful government response operates in a circular motion here.

Could violent protest be in the interest of a community? Would the Australian Occupy demonstrators have been justified in using retaliatory violence against the police as a form of self-defence? This justification was raised by protestors engaged in demonstrations against the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims that escalated in to violence in Sydney, 2012. Australian law has not recognised the argument.

In terms of damage to public property, might it also be the case that defacing government buildings or targeting religious monuments are legitimate modes of protest? In the Australian legal context, it is unlikely that this argument would pass the “maintenance of peace” requirement for legal protests. But could property damage be considered an ancillary of protest rather than a discrete criminal offence?

Perhaps this ‘right to violence’ depends on the eye of the beholder and we should employ a form of ‘moral relativism’ when assessing its legitimacy. For instance, the excessive use of force by Australian police in the Occupy protests was seen by many as a disproportionate response and met with great civilian outrage over the use of capsicum spray, batons and dogs. But should moral concessions be granted for violence deployed during the state of emergency declared by the Egyptian government?

Under international principles of derogation granted in Article 4 of the ICCPR, such a declaration allows the government to remove due process rights, allows police to arrest and detain without charge and removes the right to freedom of assembly. As per Article 4, states may only derogate from their obligations under the Covenant if there is a state of public emergency that “threatens the life of the nation”. As seen in other restrictions on human rights, this principle is often at risk of government abuse and lacks sufficient control.

The present conflict seems to reflect ‘an eye for an eye’ kind of mentality where it violence has furthered neither cause and has solidified the divide between the nation. While violence can be deployed as a means to an end for the disillusioned, it sets a dangerous precedent of permitting violence to achieve civil and political objectives. The short-term outcomes of the protests may have been effective in the 2011 disposal of Mubarak and again in the ousting of Morsi. But the physical retaliation has not since subsided.  The long-term benefits of such action are thus called into question.

This is not to say that one cannot defend their basic human rights against violent oppressors and tyrannical power; history has long-recognised the use of force through revolution as a legitimate means of last resort. Surely it is morally permissible to defend oneself when human rights are threatened, and it seems inconceivable that people must endure “even the most unbearable abuse of supreme authority.” Nonetheless, we should remain mindful that “awesome power alone does not transform a mafia into a legitimate government”.

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  • Lizzie

    Isabella, what do you mean by violence? The absence of a definition makes all the questions you ask difficult to answer.

    The use of violence for political ends is arguably a form of terror, but there is a big difference between the state sponsored killing suspected militants by drones for example and defacing government buildings (I’m not sure the latter even qualifies). I would be interested to know what aspects of the Occupy Melbourne protest you considered to be violent? It’s not a violent protest just because the cops shut down a protest using violence.

    I think we have to be very careful about how we frame these debates because otherwise we risk grouping Occupy protestors with terrorists. My point is that violence is a political concept, not just one that can be factually ascertained.