The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Lesotho is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Lesotho is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Lesotho is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Lesotho is also a State Party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, but has not allowed the right of petition to the Court by individuals and non-governmental organisations.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Section 4 of the 1993 Constitution of Lesotho, every person in Lesotho is entitled to freedom of peaceful assembly. Section 15 then provides as follows:
1. Every person shall be entitled to, and (except with his own consent) shall not be hindered in his enjoyment of freedom of peaceful assembly, without arms, that is to say, freedom to assemble with other persons.
2. Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision:
a. in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health;
b. for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons; or
c. for the purpose of imposing restrictions upon public officers.
The Government of Lesotho enacted the Public Meetings and Processions Act in 2010, which serves as the primary legislation governing assembly in Lesotho. A public meeting is defined under the Act as an assembly or gathering of persons pursuing a common purpose, excluding those gathered for religious social, cultural professional or business purposes. A procession means a public meeting that moves from one place to another.
The Act provides that anyone wishing to hold a public meeting or procession must give written notice to the officer in command of police in the area where the meeting or procession is intended to be held seven days in advance (or two days in case of an urgent application).
The Act allows for an appeal to be lodged with the Minister responsible for Police should the Commissioner of Police refuse to grant a permit to conduct a peaceful assembly within the ambits of the law.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Section 32 of the 2010 Penal Code Act allows the use of force that is necessary and reasonable (i.e. proportionate) in effecting an arrest or preventing crime.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
The Constitution allows lethal force that is "necessary in the circumstances of the case" to defend any person from violence or to defend property or for the purpose of suppressing a riot.
This is more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Lesotho has not come before the Human Rights Committee in recent years.
In its 2018 national report under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, Lesotho noted that:
In 2016, the Minister of Police upheld an appeal by students of the National University of Lesotho who were assembling against the government on what they perceived as a flagrant use of state resources to finance a controversial government fleet tender.
Chamber of Commerce and others v. Commissioner of Police and others (2011)
In his judgment in this case, Justice Peete of the High Court held that
Where a group or association of persons gives notice to police in terms of section 3 of the Public Meetings and Processions Act 2010 applying to hold a public meeting or a procession, the police should exercise their power timeously and favourably unless there are exceptional and compelling circumstances or there exists a reasonably suspected threat or harm to peace, public safety, security or public order.
Views of Civil Society
CIVICUS has reported that as the country went into lockdown to curb COVID-19 in 2020, images emerged on social media showing brutality by security forces while enforcing the lockdown restrictions. As COVID-19 and its economic effects began to be felt by workers and small business people, several strikes and protests by different groups were reported.
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Lesotho:
Protests and demonstrations are permitted, but organizers must seek a permit seven days in advance. Demonstrations take place each year, but are sometimes broken up violently by police.
According to CIVICUS, "in practice, protests have sometimes been violently dispersed, with reports of police brutality against assemblies in election periods. The police used live ammunition to disperse a strike by nurses in 2014, injuring some of those involved. In some parts of the economy, such as mining, union meetings are banned, while spontaneous workforce protests may be chilled by fear of punishments, including sackings."