The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Liberia 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.
Liberia is not 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, Liberia 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.
Liberia is a signatory but not a State Party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
According to Article 17 of the 1986 Constitution, everyone,
at all times, in an orderly and peaceable manner, shall have the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives, to petition the Government or other functionaries for the redress of grievances and to associate fully with others or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions and other organizations.
In its 2012 National Report under the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, Liberia stated that:
in order to ensure that law and order are maintained and the normal order of business of the public is not disrupted, a legislative enactment mandates the issuance by the Ministry of Justice, a clearance, which approval is not unreasonably withheld, before groups can hold public demonstrations.
Section 22.86 of the 2015 Police Act requires anyone wishing to hold a demonstration in a public place to submit a written and signed notification to the County Attorney of the relevant County (or the Minister of Justice if the event is to take place in Montserrado County, which includes Monrovia) at least seven days before the date of the planned event with the following information:
- The place and hour of the special event
- The nature of the special event
- The time of commencement of the special event
- The purpose, route and destination, if any
- Proposed time of closure of the special event.
A Joint Statement of the Ambassadors of ECOWAS, the European Union, the United States and the UN Resident Coordinator in Liberia on 10 January 2020 highlights the obscurities in the rule governing applications for protest permits and urged the Government of Liberia to “clarify a comprehensive notification or application process for large demonstrations, to include what qualifies as individual, small or large group protests, timelines, permissible locations, restrictions on what can be brought to events, etc”.
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.
The 1978 Penal Law allows use of force when a police officer is making or assisting in making an arrest and the officer "believes that such force is immediately necessary to effect a lawful arrest".S. 5.6.1, 1978 Penal Law.
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 use of "deadly force" to effect an arrest is not justifiable unless:
(a) The arrest is for a felony; and
(b) The person effecting the arrest is authorized to act as a peace officer or is assisting a person whom he believed to be authorized to act as peace officer; and
(c) The actor believes that the force employed creates no substantial risk of injury to innocent persons; and
(d) The actor believes that the crime for which the arrest is made involved conduct including the use or threatened use of deadly force; or there is a substantial risk that the person to be arrested will cause death or serious bodily harm if his apprehension is delayed.
This provision omits the crucial notion of imminence.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2018 Concluding Observations on Liberia, the Human Rights Committee called on the authorities to:
Guarantee in practice the security as well as the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals, defenders and organizations.
The Committee expressed its concern at allegations of "excessive use of police force, notably in the context of dispersing demonstrators". It called on Liberia to ensure
that the principles of necessity and proportionality in the use of force are adequately reflected in the State party’s legislation and policies, in line with the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
In its 2015 Concluding Observations on Liberia, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights expressed its concern "about information in the [National] Report that in order for Liberians to hold public demonstrations, the Ministry of Justice must provide clearance". The Commission further stated that:
Resort to a notification system in relation to freedom of peaceful assembly, and the notification procedures should meet the following minimum criteria:
i. Organisers of the assembly should be able to notify the authorities simply and quickly;
ii. The information required from organisers should not be strenuous and should include the date, time, duration and location or itinerary of the assembly;
iii. The period of notice should not be lengthy but sufficient to allow authorities to plan and prepare measures necessary to minimise disruptions the protest may cause;
iv. A prompt official response to initial notification should be given and lack of response would be deemed to constitute authorisation; and
v. The organisers should be allowed to challenge the legality of any restriction imposed through a rapid appeal process.
Views of Civil Society
On 27 August 2020, thousands of peaceful anti-rape protestors were attacked and tear-gassed by police in Monrovia on the third day of a series of protests in connection with the 'March for Justice' campaign. Demonstrators attempted to gather in front of Liberia's government offices to present a petition demanding urgent action from President George Weah and the government to address rape and sexual violence against women.
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Liberia:
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally guaranteed and largely respected. While there have been some instances of violence between political party supporters, people are largely able to gather and protest freely. A number of protests took place in 2018, including against sexual violence, corruption, and economic hardships. In October, Weah criticized demonstrations by citizens angry about the missing $L16 billion in bank notes, calling the protesters “rebellious” and implying that they threatened stability.