The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Panama 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.
Panama 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, Panama is a state party to the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. Article 15 governs the right of assembly:
The right of peaceful assembly, without arms, is recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights or freedom of others.
Panama has accepted the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hear complaints by individuals under the jurisdiction of the state that their rights under the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights have been violated.
On 25 March 2020, Panama informed the OAS that as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic two government decrees had outlawed all but essential movement on its territory, including the imposition of a curfew.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Article 38 of the 1972 Constitution of the Republic of Panama (as amended through 2004):
All inhabitants of the Republic have the right to assemble peacefully, without arms, for lawful ends. Public demonstrations or gatherings in open air are not subject to permission. Only previous notification of the local Administrative Authorities, twenty four hours in advance, is required to hold such gatherings.
Authorities may take police action to prevent or restrain abuse of this right, when the form in which it is exercised causes, or may cause, traffic disturbances, breach of the peace, or violation of the rights of others.
Owing to the need for prior notification, spontaneous assemblies are unlawful. Further, Article 170 of the Penal Code criminalises certain assemblies:
Whoever, abusing his right of assembly or demonstration, through the use of violence, prevents or impedes the free passage of vehicles on the country's public roads and causes damage to public or private property shall be punished by imprisonment from six months to two years.
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 acts of the national police are formally regulated by Law No. 18 of 3 June 1997. Under the Act, force may only be used where strictly necessary for legitimate law enforcement objectives.Art. 19, Police Act, No. 18 of 3 June 1997.
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.
Article 32 of the Act governs recourse to firearms. These are permitted, where necessary, for the protection of life and bodily integrity in self-defence or defence of others. What is missing is an explicit requirement that the threat be imminent. Firearms may not be used where there is a threat to the wellbeing of a third person or may harm a hostage.Art. 33, Police Act, No. 18 of 3 June 1997.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Panama has not come before the Human Rights Committee in recent years. Panama did not address the issue of peaceful assembly in its national report for its 2015 Universal Periodic Review under the Human Rights Council.
There has been no case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights involving the right of peaceful assembly in Panama. Panama has reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the management of assemblies that
before turning to the use of force one must exhaust all possible means of persuasion, among them: dialogue with the demonstrators by a member of the Regular Police who is not involved in the intervention of the anti-riot elements, the intervention of the civilian authorities, persuasion using megaphones or loudspeakers regarding the possible intervention of the riot police and the legal basis for their action, allow a prudent time for observing whether the demonstrators are or are not persuaded.Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report 2015, §110.
Views of Civil Society
According to CIVICUS's report on Panama:
The freedom of peaceful assembly is recognised in the Panamanian Constitution. Organisers must give 24 hours prior notice before a public gathering, demonstrations blocking public transit require authorisation, spontaneous assemblies are not permitted, and violent protests are punishable with imprisonment. In practice, road blockades, with and without prior notice, are widespread. Authorities often fail to protect demonstrators and sometimes use excessive force to suppress protests, even peaceful ones, when circulation is disturbed. The increasing militarisation of the security forces is a cause for concern within civil society. A conflict around the construction of two hydroelectric dams that is expected to cause massive flooding and displace dozens of indigenous and peasant communities has been ongoing for years, with several protests repressed by police, especially in early 2013.