Inquiry into Drug Law Reform: Submission

Standing Committee on Legal and Social Issues

Submission to the Inquiry into Drug Law Reform

Parliament House, Spring St
EAST MELBOURNE VIC 3002

 

Dear Committee Secretary,

Endorsement of the Abolitionist and Transformative Justice Centre’s (ATJC) submission

Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) welcomes the opportunity to endorse the Abolitionist and Transformative Justice Centre’s submission to the Committee’s Inquiry into Drug Law Reform.

MALS observes, documents and reports on police and civilian engagement and harmful policing practices through its work supporting activists to defend their own civil and political rights to protest in the State of Victoria.

This endorsement focuses on the section of ATJC’s submission detailing how harmful police practices may increase the likelihood of drug-related harm in the community.

ATJC’s submission recommends:

That there be recognition of the harmful effects of policing on community-based harm reduction methods.

That police participate in meaningful harm reduction that guarantees safety for drug users, safeguarded by law and not just reliant on policy.

MALS makes a further submission that “meaningful harm reduction” extends to include banning the use of drug detection dogs and strip searches at music and arts festivals.

Research has shown that 30% of people when seeing drug detection dogs at an event consumed all of their drugs at once to avoid detection, leading to a higher risk of overdose. [1] The same study also found that searches had a very low success rate and research participants commented that police interactions left them feeling anxious and humiliated.[2]

Based on the research undertaken by advocates working with criminalised people subjected to strip searches, MALS submits that strip searches are particularly invasive and troubling for women and gender diverse people and have proved not to be successful at preventing drug related harm.[3]

If you have any questions in relation this endorsement or seek further advice from MALS please contact Katia Lallo, Collective Member,by email melbactivistlegal@gmail.com.

Yours faithfully,

Melbourne Activist Legal Support

16 March 2017

 

 


[1] Purple Hazelwood, Stan Winford, Dr. Jennifer Johnson, Rebecca Jenkinson, Damon Brogan, Sniffer Dogs: Their role in the reduction of drug-related harm? Presented at Club Health June 2008, Ibiza, Spain.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, McCulloch, Jude and George, Amanda, ‘Naked Power: Strip Searching in Women’s Prisons’, in J. McCulloch and P. Scraton (eds), Violence of Incarceration, Routledge (2008).

 

Anti-mask laws proposed in Victoria

benny zablePerformance artist and activist: Benny Zable. Photo: Wanagi Zable-Andrews

Artist and activist Benny Zable (pictured above) has been wearing a mask at protests throughout Australia for over 30 years. His distinctive skull-like gas mask and painted death-bringer costume, atop large black radioactive drums has become an icon of the peace, anti-nuclear and environmental movements throughout the country. He is a performance artist who uses his art form to depict a chilling prophesy of nuclear and environmental catastrophe.

But proposed Victorian anti-mask legislation could put at risk this and countless other forms of peaceful political expression and potentially undermine the freedom we have to assemble and associate.

Victorian Attorney-General Martin Pakula will introduce a bill into parliament next week (March 2017) that will contain a new offence of “violent disorder”, with a 10 year maximum and a 15 year maximum if you commit that offence whilst wearing a face covering. The proposed laws will also give police specific powers to order people to remove a face mask and an another new offence if people do not comply.

Aside from the totally unnecessary move to create a new protest related offence when plenty of others (such as ‘riot’, ‘affray’, assault etc) already exist, any laws targeting protesting can dangerously impinge upon basic freedoms of speech, expression and assembly.

Image result for protest masks

According to the Attorney General, “It will be clear in the legislation that we’re only talking about face coverings where the police believe you’re wearing it for the purpose of concealing your identity, or for the purpose of protecting yourself against the impact of capsicum spray and the like.” (ABC Online 13/3/17)

It was only a matter of time before some Victorian Government put up some anti-masks laws.   The intense media and public outcry after the clashes between neo-nazi and Antifa groups in Coburg in May 2016 meant that the pressure was on to look like they were doing something. The state opposition, police command and the Police Association and Victoria’s police minister Lisa Neville all stridently called for face masks at protests to be banned after Coburg as a way of dealing with the media outrage.  There should be no doubt that these laws are political. They will do nothing to stem the rise of the far-right in Victoria.  Rather than actually confront the growing surge of active street politics by dangerous neo-nazi groups, the Victorian Government seem like they will respond with a blanket increase in penalties and the banning of bandannas.

“The wearing of masks at protests, I think, simply indicates that people have come with the intent of committing some sort of violence and want to evade the law. That is totally unacceptable”  said Liberal Party mp and Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Inga Peulich in Parliament this month- (8 March 2017).   This simplistic view has driven the introduction of this Bill. It is wrong and its adoption into law could undermine some vital civil and political rights.

It is already a crime in Victoria to be disguised with “unlawful intent” under s 49C of the Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic). If a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that a masked protester is going to commit a violent act, he or she can arrest and unmask the protester.

Spain, Russia, France, Canada and many other countries have introduced various anti-mask laws over recent decades. Canada passed laws banning the wearing of masks during a riot or unlawful assembly after 2012 Quebec student protests at which only a tiny  proportion of participants wore any face coverings.  In response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, local legislators have been preparing laws which would bar people from wearing “a mask or hood that covers part or all of the face when in a public area, ban use of coverings for a person’s face while at a demonstration or rally on private property without written permission.”  Incidentally, anti-mask legislation was first introduced in the United States as a measure to restrict the Klu Klux Clan.

Some anti-mask laws in other countries include exemptions for wearing masks for religious purposes, for theatrical productions, sporting events, parades, civil defense drills and protection from severe weather. Some, but not all, include exemptions for political expression. It is not known what exemptions, if any, the Victorian Bill will include.

On the information we have so far, the bill poses a threat to the freedom of assembly and association and to freedom of political expression for the following reasons.

Masks as political expression

Image result for protest masks history

Masks of all sorts have a very long association with protest and political expression.  We wear them to mock and ridicule public figures and politicians, to symbolize an act of oppression, to express dissent and disdain and as an act of political street theatre.  Masks in some form are common at rallies, marches and political demonstrations and they have been throughout human history.

Liberty Victoria points out that “Protests are public spectacles, often designed to attract media attention. A costume, including a mask, is a visual way to express a political viewpoint. That is why Anti-Iraq protesters constructed paper mache masks to ridicule Bush, Howard, and Blair; why supporters of the band pussy- riot, imprisoned in Putin’s Russia, donned balaclavas to protest the band’s sentence; and why occupy wall street activists adopted the Guy Fawkes mask recently popularized by the film V for Vendetta. These protesters were not violent. They used masks to ridicule politicians, express solidarity, or communicate an idea.”

What this proposed law does is make police the arbiter of this form of political expression.

Ordinary, regular and very non-artistic police members will suddenly have the power to go up to a person at a political demonstration and demand that they remove their face covering.

If a political artist like the renown Benny Zable does not comply then he risks being arrested.

There is also a blurry line when it comes to face coverings and where the limits of this law will lie.  Religious headscarfs? Funny hats that cover the eyes? Groucho Marx glasses? Paper-mache politician heads?  If the proposed laws contain exemptions how will police determine what is acceptable or unacceptable? Vague but punitive laws and arbitrary policing has a chilling effect and deters people from attending protests or choosing to express themselves due to fear of repercussions, even if what they are intending to do is not actually unlawful.

The right to anonymity

“The right to protest should not be contingent on consent to surveillance” says Liberty Victoria.
 At times, particularly in circumstances where a protest is about controversial views, maintaining our anonymity may be critical to allowing freedom of association.  If attending a protest necessarily entails intrusive surveillance from the state or the threat of violence from other groups then you cannot really say we have genuine ‘freedom’ of peaceful assembly.    This very point was once affirmed by an important US civil rights case brought before the United StatesImage result for protest masks

Supreme Court (NAACP vs. Alabama 1958)  which stated that ‘Inviolability of privacy in group association may in circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

Protesters have legitimate reasons for wanting to conceal their identity.  We may not wish to be subject to police surveillance, and scrutiny In an era of ubiquitous CCTV and street cameras, police filming units and the use of facial recognition technology, any facial image obtained by Victoria Police can be utilised in numerous unregulated and intrusive ways and can be stored indefinitely. The Victorian Parliament is yet to legislate or provide any restrictions or regulatory guidance about the police use of facial recognition technology despite it being in use for several years now.
Fear of retaliatory violence is also very real for protest groups confronting far-right or neo-nazi groups on the streets.   Far-right groups have used social media to identify counter- protesters, naming them in blogs and Facebook pages and attracting comments making threats of violence.  Several assaults of activists who had been identified by nazis have occurred since the first Reclaim Australia rally in early 2015.   In these circumstances it is understandable that some people might want to protect their identity at rallies without having any intention of engaging in criminality.

In this political climate, many activists face a difficult decision. If they take to the streets and protest on a controversial campaign (especially a campaign that has involved both legal and illegal tactics), they risk this surveillance, harassment and intimidation.  If they don’t take to the streets, they are compromising their beliefs and remaining silent about the things that matter.

For many, a solution has been to continue protesting on these campaigns, but with masks covering their faces. It clearly isn’t always the best solution. But wearing a mask doesn’t mean activists are guilty, or that they are ‘terrorists.’  For many activists, it simply means they don’t trust police, ASIO or others intent on doing them harm.

Masks as protection

Many commentators have already pointed out that faces at modern protests are often covered with scarves, goggles, gas masks or handkerchiefs in response to police use of chemical-based weapons such as pepper (OC) spray and tear gas. 

Image result for street medicThe use of OC, capsicum foam at protests in Victoria has skyrocketed in recent years, and has correlated with the rise in people wearing some form of face covering.  Even professional journalists covering protests now wear some sort of face protection to make sure the spray doesn’t get into their nose, eyes and mouths whilst taking photos. Medics and legal support teams wear face protection.  When police deploy OC spray or foam at a protest event, it is inevitable that many people in the vicinity including other police, can be severely affected.  In some OC spray incidents at Melbourne rallies up to 70 people were affected by spray at any one time. The need for some sort of mouth and nose covering is very real.

The Attorney General has stated that the legislation will only target face coverings where the police “believe you’re wearing it for the purpose of concealing your identity, or for the purpose of protecting yourself against the impact of capsicum spray and the like.” (ABC Online 13/3/17).  If the wearing of protective face coverings becomes unlawful under this new legislation it will be yet another infringement upon our right to assemble without the risk of state violence.

“Masked, I advance”  ― The opposition to this Bill

This Bill is only about to be introduced and opposition to it is likely to grow. It will take several months before it becomes law.

Liberty Victoria has already come out strongly against any laws banning masks, stating:

“Simply banning all masks at protests would be a broad brush “one size fits all” approach that undermines our civil liberties when the case has not been made as to why such laws are necessary and proportionate. To the same end, to introduce a mandatory or prescriptive sentencing model for those who commit disorder offences while wearing masks would cause injustice and represent a further erosion of judicial discretion in sentencing. Any bill that proposes such measures should be opposed.”

Liberty Victoria’s full statement came be read here (PDF).

Fiona Patton (MP) from the Australian Sex Party has spoken out in parliament about any proposed anti-mask legislation. “Such a decision could have negative flow-on effects for the very groups targeted. Mask or no mask, if you are behaving in ways that are not consistent with acceptable behaviour, police already have the power to act in such circumstances.” She said back in June last year.

Melbourne Activist Legal Support will be watching this Bill closely and providing further commentary.  There will likely be an opportunity for community, legal and human rights groups to make submissions at some point and we will keep people up to date as things change or progress.

Watch this space.

STATEMENT OF CONCERN: Treatment of Legal Observer 11/2/2017

‘Block the Bill’ rally 11 February 2017, Melbourne, Australia

 

On Saturday the 11th of February 2017 Melbourne Activist Legal Support (MALS) fielded a team of three (3) trained Legal Observers at the ‘Block the Bill’ rally that took place on Swanston Street, near the intersection with Latrobe Street, at the State Library Victoria in Melbourne’s Central Business District.

Legal Observers monitored the actions of Victoria Police and recorded evidence throughout the 3 hour event. The following area of concern was recorded at 15:06.

Areas of concern:

Legal Observers noted that three police members acted in an intimidating manner toward a Legal Observer and obscured their uniform name badges in contravention of Victoria Police regulations. The Legal Observer had approached the members to take down their name and unit details from their visible name badges. The police members surrounded the Legal Observer and questioned the content of the Legal Observers notes. One police member moved to within 15-20 centimeters of the Legal Observer and attempted to read what she was writing on her clipboard. The Legal Observer asked for their names, but all three declined. One (1) of the police members then removed his name badge from his uniform while another clutched his collar of his vest as to obscure his name badge.
MALS expressed concern of the intimidating treatment toward a Legal Observer to the officer in charge (OIC) Senior Sergeant John Mason, at the event.

MALS notes that all Victoria Police members in uniform are required to wear current issue name tags that specify first name or initial/s, surname and rank. (Victoria Police Manual, Uniform and Appearance Standards, Oct 2016)

MALS also notes that Victoria police are obligated under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibility (the Charter) to protect the freedom of peaceful assembly and efforts to maintain a space where the public can attend the ‘Block the Bill’ rally.

We also remind the public and Victoria Police that civilian Legal Observers are human right defenders and under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, Legal Observers have a right to fulfill their role unhindered and without obstruction. www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/Declaration.aspx

Contact email: melbactivistlegal@gmail.com

www.melbourneactivistlegalsupport.org

What is this thing called Legal Observing?

And why do you wear those pink vests?

13301550_1220876584597300_2242424408214564366_o

Legal Observers, or Human Rights Monitors as they are sometimes called, have become a common sight at large scale protest events throughout the western world over the past decade or so and the chances are you have seem MALS Legal Observers in the pink hi-vis vests at a protest in Melbourne.

Working in organised teams in hi-visibility vests, arm-bands or special caps and armed with clipboards and cameras, Legal Observers are becoming more common at protests as governments increase police powers, restrict protest activity and roll-back basic democratic freedoms in ways once unimaginable.

The independent citizen monitoring or police at protests has a long history. In the United States the Black Panthers was perhaps the earliest group to deploy community legal observers to patrol and monitor the policing of Black communities in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In Australia, priests were called upon to act as observers and to provide a moral deterrence to police violence.during the large anti-Vietnam War moratorium marches.  The Legal Observer Team formed in Melbourne for the S11 protests against the World Economic Forum were the first in Australia since that time. Observer teams have been used for many decades in places like Northern Ireland, where independent civilian groups formed ongoing human rights monitoring teams with the aim of documenting and deterring the brutality of the occupying military and police force.

Image result for legal observers More recently, legal observer teams were deployed at many large scale anti-globalisation demonstrations around the world – including the protests held in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Washington, London, Torronto, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Internationally, citizen initiated, third party observer and monitoring projects are becoming more common. Amnesty International US recently fielded Legal Observers during protests in Ferguson, Missouri and sent teams of Human Rights Observers to the Dakota Access #NoDAPL Pipeline protests.  The US National Lawyers Guild (NLG) routinely field Legal Observers throughout the United States.

Image result for legal observers

The goal of a Legal Observer Team is to ensure and enhance the political ‘space’ within which people protest. The highly visible presence of independent citizens helps to ensure that abuses of the civil, legal or human rights of citizens at the hands of police do not go unnoticed. The presence of Legal Observers should reduce the probability of police abuses or may assist in ensuring that arrests are carried out in a less violent way. Legal Observers therefore act as a viable form of deterrence of police violence.

Legal Observers often act for as the eyes and ears of a larger legal team — to observe and record incidents and the activities of law enforcement in relation to the demonstrators.

This includes documenting any arrest, use of force, intimidating display of force, denial of access to public spaces like parks and footpaths, and any other behavior on the part of police that appears to restrict activist’s ability to express their political views.

This documentation is done in a thorough and professional manner, so that lawyers representing arrestees or bringing an action against the police will be able to objectively evaluate the lawfulness of police conduct.  Information gathered by Legal Observers  has contributed to defending and advancing the rights of activists in many scenarios. Documentation has also been critical for detailed analysis and reporting on the police actions at protests.  See some of those Legal Observer reports see our Resources page here.

Legal Observers don’t give legal, tactical, or political advice, negotiate with the police for demonstrators, or speak to the media or public on behalf of the protest.   We will however speak publicly about police action and about human rights abuses we witness and report afterwards.  Legal Observers are trained not to interfere in arrests but instead take in as much information as possible.

Third-party presence

Image result for legal observersAs public order policing becomes increasingly paramilitary –by deploying violence and force against groups of unarmed people –so the need for independent Legal Observing and counter-surveillance of police actions becomes more acute.

Legal (or third-party) Observer Teams aim to provide a level of independent and impartial scrutiny at community protests and political events that serves to deter police from using violence against citizens. The deterrence effect of a Legal Observer Team can include the simple effect of being observed, the threat of future civil legal sanctions against police, the reinforcement of existing police accountability mechanisms or the possible application of domestic civil rights or international human rights mechanisms. Legal Observers act as on-the-ground witness’s so that our notes, our photos and out testimony can be used in follow up court action or for complaints against police.  Being a third-party (ie. not one one of the protesters) means that our testimony has more credibility in a court.

Legal Observers wear vests or some form of clear visible identification in order to stand out and to ensure that the police and public notice us. Being visible and being seen is crucial. Legal Observers will often stand so that police will notice our presence.

Image result for legal observersSignificantly, third-party observation or ‘presence’ can also serve to reduce the level of fear experienced by activists when faced with violent or coercive police responses. The presence of Legal Observers can be reassuring for activists when isolated or fearful of what the police may do.

This reassurance function is less tangible but and important impact of a legal observer presence. In contexts where the legislative and police response to protest is intimidation and overwhelming show of force, the presence of independent third parties dedicated to civil and political rights can be critical.   Both the deterrence effect and the reduction of fear are important objectives of the Legal Observer teams.

Most people are alienated from the law, by obscure legal language, and by the decisions that are made in courts and parliaments. At the same time, protestors are disproportionately targeted by the state and police authorities and disproportionately entangled in the law and criminal justice system.

By providing clear legal information, assisting protestors to give statements and making complaints against police abuses, Legal Observers help people to use the law to assert their civil and political rights, and -in so doing –help give people more control over what happens to them.

Image result for legal observers

The deterrence impact of Legal Observers is very limited however and can never be relied upon. Horrific abuses and infringements of rights occurs despite the presence of observers.

But the presence of dedicated, trained and identified observers adds to and reinforces, both practically and symbolically, the range of legal, ethical and political constraints on police behaviour which already exist. These constraints, which include international human rights covenants, public and media scrutiny and public opinion, the threat of legal sanctions and civil litigation against individual police, and current Police ethical standards, protocols and standing orders, will not prevent the police nor private agents abuse power nor will they prevent gross violations of people’s rights occurring.

But Legal Observers, by being on the ground and accurately witnessing and documenting abuses, can serve to strengthen the limited effectiveness of these constraints on police behaviour.

For more information about the roles, scope, mandate and skills involved in Legal Observing have a read of our 20 page Legal Observer Handbook(PDF)

NETPOL: Network for Police Monitoring in the United Kingdom have this great guide How to Be a Legal Observer.

Huffington Post ran this article Legal Observers Help Monitor Police which is worth a read too.

Want to try it out?

You don’t have to be a lawyer or legally trained to be a Legal Observer but training in the relevant laws, police powers and observer skills and protocols is important. If you’d like to become a legal observer and you are based in Melbourne then keep an eye out for our next training on our training page. or join our email list.

Anthony Kelly

Lawful or Unlawful?

“I support your right to protest, as long as you don’t break the law…”

“I support your right to protest, as long as you don’t break the law”. How many times have you heard this statement from police, from politicians, from passers by, or even friends and family?

legal-illegalA Victorian Premier, when questioned about protesters picketing a company building said that while he respected the right of people to protest peacefully, “they have no right to break the law.”[1]

“The Government supports peoples’ right to protest lawfully. These amendments will preserve that right, so long as the protest activities do not put anyone’s safety at risk or break the law” states another government media release a few years back.

This supposed support for the right to protest, as long as it is “lawful”, assumes a great number of things. It assumes that in Australia we have ample and sufficient political space for us to protest. However, the criminal law throughout Australia encompasses a huge range of offenses that can be and are used against activists if the police or the government of the day choose. How much political space we actually have depends on a complex range of factors.

It also assumes a level of legal clarity that simply does not exist. When it comes to public protests or political actions, what is lawful and unlawful is often very confusing and is always changing as new laws are introduced and old laws re-applied or changed. Police will often use a legal construct called ‘Breach of the Peace‘ as the reason to arrest, to move-on or use force against protesters – yet that legal term is extraordinarily vague and open almost entirely to the police member’s interpretation and ‘reasonable belief’.

Image result for student protest arrest melbourneAlthough lawyers can provide advice about what the current law says and what charges are possible, the way in which police and government apply and use the law is always changing and hard to pin down.

Police have a fair degree of discretion about how they apply a particular law, what arrest power they use and what charges to lay at a particular time. They decide whether they arrest or charge at all. Police may simply stand by when activists chalk on the road during one protest, or they may arrest people at a different protest for doing exactly the same thing.

Seemingly innocuous activities such as honking your horn as you drive past a picket or weaving ribbon through a wire fence have been interpreted as offenses in Australia. Mostly they are ignored – but police could charge you with a traffic offense if they choose to.

When activists camp on public land at or near the site of a protest, local council powers may be used by police even when no issue of trespass arises. Decades old and archaic council by-laws can be revived for an anti-protest purpose. Activists handing out leaflets in Melbourne were once fined using a by-law that hadn’t been enforced since the 1960s.[2]

When existing laws are not adequate to restrict activists or stifle our ability to protest, a new law can be created, sometimes specifically to deal with a particular protest.

The famous Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra is a classic example of this. On 26th January 1972, when four Aboriginal men, Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Bertie Williams and Tony Coorey, set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra overnight it was lawful to camp on the lawns opposite the then Parliament House.

However, after the Embassy had grown in size and had become a powerful international symbol of Aboriginal land rights, the government made a minor amendment to the Trespass on Commonwealth Lands Ordinance in a midnight sitting which banned camping on unleased Commonwealth land within Canberra. Suddenly, the Tent Embassy was unlawful.

On July 20, just hours after the new law came into effect, police moved in forcibly evicting the tents and arresting activists.

People who say that they support protest as long as it doesn’t break the law’, are also saying that they believe  activist do not really need to break the law in order to be effective. Well, history says otherwise.

Sometimes breaking the law is the whole point

Civil disobedience is the deliberate and conscious refusal to obey, or violation of, a law believed to be unjust.

The deliberate violation of laws has played a crucial part in Australian political history. The Aboriginal land rights and civil rights movement, union struggles for wages and the eight hour day, women’s campaigns for the vote, and the modern peace, social justice and environmental movements have all been effective. Hundreds of people have been arrested in large civil disobedience actions throughout Australia at many protests against US bases, uranium mines, asylum seeker detention centres and blockades of old growth logging operations.

A famous and influential theorist of civil disobedience in the western world was Henry David Thoreau.  Thoreau’s essay, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), influenced Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and countless other activists.

He said,

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much for the right Law never made men a whit more just; and by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. . . the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law.”

The argument that the demands of conscience are higher than the demands of the law is central to all civil disobedience.

To break or not to break the law…

Although some activists may knowingly break laws, or engage in deliberate civil disobedience, not all activists deliberately seek to break the law.

Those who do so often consider and weigh up the costs and consequences of unlawful action carefully and make clear choices.

Even activists who go to great lengths to stay within the law can inadvertently break laws and find themselves arrested. Laws can be used against activists in order to control or stifle protest and dissent even when there is no intention by activists to break the law.

It is not the case that activists are criminals. It is more often the case of the legal system working to criminalise activists.

So why is this important?

This so called distinction, between ‘lawful’ and ‘unlawful’ forms of protest is an artificial and deliberate one.

The distinction is used politically to restrict protest action to what is perceived to be less threatening; protest that is easier to police and contain.

The distinction is also used in an attempt to divide  protest movements into those engaged in ‘lawful’ protests from those who may used ‘unlawful’ forms of protest of resistance – a divisive tactic aimed at deterring more conservative groups or members of the public from working with groups involved with civil disobedience.

The ‘lawful / unlawful’ distinction attempts to generate an arbitrary boundary around forms of protest available to the movement – a boundary that at all times should remain within the control of the movement itself.

Anthony Kelly

Anthony is a member of Melbourne Activist Legal Support and the organiser of multiple Legal and Human Rights Observer teams since the World Economic Forum protests in 2001.

This article originally appeared in an earlier form on activistrights.org.au, published by the Fitzroy Legal Service. These views are his own. 

[1] ‘Police union calls for East West Link protesters to be charged’ by Matt Johnston, Herald Sun, 6 November 2013.

[2] ‘Mounted Police attached peaceful Nike picket’, by James Grafti, Green Left Weekly, 9 May 2001

Are you a human rights defender? The statement from the United Nations special rapporteur is worth a read

In early October, members of Melbourne Activist Legal Support met with the United Nations special rapporteur Michel Forst, who has since released his report on the situation of human rights defenders in Australia.*

It is a powerful and important statement and has largely backed up what Australian activist, legal and human rights organisations have been saying for many years – that the Australian Government is dangerously impeding and repressing those of us in Australia trying to defend and stand up for basic civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights.

“I reminded the Government that human rights defenders have a legitimate right to promote and protect all human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, regardless of whether their peaceful activities are seen by some as frustrating development projects. I therefore recommend that the laws criminalizing peaceful protests are urgently reviewed and rescinded.”  – Michel Forst

In the parlance of the global human rights community, a ‘human rights defender’ can be anyone, anywhere, who is taking action that seeks to defend, promote or strengthen a right recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any of the subsequent UN conventions or covenants. It has been well documented that around the world, human rights defenders are often targeted, threatened, abducted, abused, tortured or killed due to their activism – most often by their own governments. Hence the need for a clear Declaration documenting the rights and protections available to them and stating the obligations of governments to observe them.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The Declaration on human rights defenders, from which Michel Forst, the current Special rapporteur gets his mandate to investigate and report on countries who have signed it,  was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998. The position of Rapporteur is an independent expert, able to exercise professional and impartial judgement and report directly to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

This particular Declaration on HRDs is particularly useful for activists in Australia to know about as it is designed, in part, to speak directly to us – activists who defend or promote human rights.  It as a strong, very useful and pragmatic text. It tells us that we all have a role to fulfill as human rights defenders and emphasizes that there is a global human rights movement that involves us all. It outlines concretely each of the obligations that the state has to protect and ensure that we have access to protection, information and safety.

cropped-silencing-act.jpg

This Declaration is very important to the work of the Melbourne Activist Legal Support and is something that we refer to in our training.  If you act as a Legal Observer or are a part of MALS, then you are acting as a Human Rights Defender  and have all the rights articulated in the Declaration on HRD’s whilst you are doing that work.

Likewise – if you are an Indigenous activist standing up for the rights entailed in the The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) then you can also call yourself a human right defender if you so choose. As can people protesting for rights in The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or any other UN article or convention that spells out our civil, political, economic or cultural rights.

If you want to have a read of it see here>And this Fact Sheet is also very useful.

In other words, every one of us has the right to defend all human rights for all. The Australian State is therefore under the obligation to take steps to create necessary conditions, including in the political and legal domains, in order to ensure that everyone in the country can enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.  Well, wouldn’t that be good.

Concerns raised by MALS

During his two-week visit, at the invitation of the Government, the expert met with vast range of federal and state officials, members of the parliament and judiciary, statutory bodies, as well as human rights defenders and representatives of civil society, media and business.

In our meeting with Mr Forst, MALS members raised specific and general concerns about policing and anti-protest laws according to our observations of many protest events over several years. We referred to assaults on peaceful protestors, the growing use of OC (pepper) spray by police, corporate spy infiltration of movements and anti protest laws proliferating around the country. We referred to the spraying of street medics and injured people in Melbourne at the Counter Reclaim Australia protests (18/7/2015) and Jafri Katagar being sprayed at close range outside Flinders Street (23/9/2016). We also raised the rights of Legal Observers to be free from police harassment and interference whilst observing public protest events. See this  Statement of Concern (July 2015). We spoke about how Legal Observers had been restricted from accessing certain areas were activists had been taken for questioning.

We raised the issue of over-policing and how the deployment of so many police units including, mounted and teams of riot police, often deters people from attending or joining in at a protest and leads to a ‘closing down’ of political space.
We raised the issue of the police bias often noticeable at protest events and gave the example of the police officer that was captured high-fiving a Reclaim Australia protestor (18/7/15).

End Of Mission Statement

In his end-of-mission statement on Australia Michel Forst said he was “astonished” by numerous measures heaping “enormous pressure” on public servants, whistleblowers and ordinary citizens that restrict and curtail their rights.

The official statement stated that he found a growing body of laws, both at the federal and state levels, constraining the rights of human rights defenders.

“They have ranged from intensifying secrecy laws to proliferating anti-protest laws, from the stifling Border Force Act to the ‘Standing’ bill shrinking environmental access to courts,” Mr. Forst specified.

The statement says:

“it is alarming to observe the increasing trend by State governments to constrain the exercise of this fundamental freedom through what essentially is anti-protest legislation. Jointly with other fellow UN experts, I have conveyed repeated concerns to the Australian Government that such laws would contravene Australia’s international obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of expression as well as peaceful assembly. The proposed laws would criminalize a wide range of legitimate conduct by determining them as “disrupting” business operations, physically preventing a lawful activity or possessing an object for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity. Peaceful civil disobedience and any non-violent direct action could be characterized as disruption and “physically preventing a lawful activity”, and thus become criminalized.”

On the new national security laws, dealing with a data-retention scheme to retain metadata for two years, the statement said that these have:

“serious implications for journalists and whistleblowers. They have mandated the stockpiling of huge rafts of metadata of individuals, reportedly giv­ing law enforcement agencies the means to identify jour­nalists’ confidential sources.”

Emily Howie, Director of Advocacy and Research at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the Special Rapporteur’s statement highlights what many Australians already know.
“This a wake-up call to Australia: despite our strong track record as a vibrant and diverse
democracy, the reality is that more and more people here feel silenced by government and fearful of speaking out. This trend has widespread impact, including on environmental organisations, journalists, trade unions, landholders, community lawyers, doctors working with refugees, philanthropists and more,”

Forst makes a set of recommendations to the Australian Government including one to ensure prompt and impartial investigations into alleged threats and violence against human rights defenders and trade unionists and bring to justice direct perpetrators, and also to review and revoke laws that restrictive of the right to freely and peacefully assemble.

He also makes a set of recommendations directly to human rights defenders  (as in ‘us’) to:

  • Develop and strengthen federal and state networks aimed at empowering defenders and facilitating coordination;
  • Become more familiar with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and publicise it broadly in society.
  • Make full use of United Nations human rights mechanisms, when reporting on human rights violations.

These are all good ideas and things that we have been doing already.  MALS will continue to support groups and communities exercising their civil and political rights by fielding legal observer training, providing free resources and up to date information regarding the right to protest at law in Victoria.

cropped-megaphones.jpg

So what now?

So will things change now with this searing indictment on Australia? No. Not at all really.

The Turnbull government has said it “will consider the special rapporteur’s recommendations in the same way as it considers recommendations from all United Nations mechanisms” – which is another way of saying it will totally ignore them.

Like all international rights it takes years of struggle and a lot of hard work to see them realised and all rights need constant defending.  But this Special Rapporteur’s statement is yet another tool we can use in our advocacy and to inform our ongoing work. It will be referred to by NGO representatives and delegates at the UN and  raised in meetings, forums and by delegations to do with Australia.  It provides a great deal of authority to our existing work and backs up our local campaigning against anti-protest laws and against repressive police powers. Campaigners in Tasmania and Western Australia will be able to use this statement in their ongoing work against their respective anti-protest legislation.

Forst’s visit is also a reminder that we are part of an international struggle and human rights are under threat everywhere, that our struggle is international and that we win rights, often step by little step.  International attention, condemnation and outrage can, at certain times, be a deciding factor in a movements ability to win – particularly when domestic governments refuse to listen or engage.  Groups in the global south suffering under authoritarian regimes often called this transnational human rights advocacy the ‘boomerang’ strategy. Australian activists could always improve how we mobilise and utilise international pressure on our own domestic issues.

Mr. Forst will present a final report with his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in 2017.

In February 2016, the Human Rights Law Centre published Safeguarding Democracy, a report that addressed many of the concerns now raised by the UN. It is also worth a read.

 

(*) Read the Special Rapporteurs full end-of-mission statement here:
2016-10-18_australia_sr-hrd-statement-final

Occupy Policing: The Eviction of Occupy Melbourne

Inspired by the global call for action by the Indignados movement in Spain, the protests and revolutions across the Arab World and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, activists organised to launch Occupy Melbourne in City Square on 15 October 2011. Occupy Melbourne sought to transform City Square into a ‘common’ space of political demonstration where people could learn, discuss and demonstrate about issues of concern. In particular, the abuses of political and corporate power, globalised neo-liberalism, the imposition of austerity, and the privatisation of public services.

Six days later, in the early hours of Friday 21 October 2011, Occupy Melbourne protesters were requested by Melbourne City Council to leave City Square. A few days earlier, Lord Mayor Doyle claimed that the protesters had a ‘right to protest’ but that this right was time-restricted. ‘A week’, claimed Doyle, ‘was a reasonable time for their mindless shriek of protest’. Assistant Commissioner Fontana was reported as saying: ‘They’ve [protesters] had more than ample time to make their point in terms of what their protest is about and I think it’s time to give the City Square back to the citizens of Melbourne.’ If it is to be meaningful, any political ‘right to protest’ needs to protect how protesters make their point. Continuous protest in the form of an ‘occupation’ was central to the mode of protest that the Occupy Movement took. Placing time restriction on this defeats the specific objective of the global Occupy movement. Therefore many protesters remained in the City Square, and others joined them in asserting the ‘public’ nature of the Square and the right to be in and create open spaces for political demonstration and communication. The Square was fenced off from protesters, and basically surrounded by police.

At around 11:30am, Victorian Police officers from the Public Order Response Team in groups of 4–6 officers advance towards Occupiers and physically remove them one by one, carrying or dragging them out of City Square. Occupiers who have linked arms are wrenched out of that formation. Over 100 people are removed in this way from City Square. Communal and private property was removed from the site. Prior to this violent eviction from City Square a crowd of hundreds gather to watch and support protesters in the Square.

screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-10-01-38-amOne year on from the controversial eviction ‘Occupy Policing: A Report into the Effects and Legality of the Eviction of Occupy Melbourne from City Square on 21 October 2011‘ is highly critical of the authorities—Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police—who authorised and effected the eviction. The Report documents the personal stories of people who took part in the Occupy Melbourne protests and their experiences of policing. It complements these personal stories with an account of the relevant law. The Report was published by the Occupy Melbourne Legal Support Team (‘OMLST’) and is endorsed by the Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service, the Federation of Community Legal Centre and the National Police Accountability Network.

The Report documents the harmful effects of this policing operation both on individuals and also on the capacity and willingness of people to engage in political dissent. ‘Today my whole perception of what freedom means to me in Australia was turned on its head as I witnessed the scariest brutality I have ever seen police conduct’, Emily, 37, stated to the OMLST. The effects of such violence can be traumatising. Many protesters at Occupy Melbourne were new to activism and had no previous experiences of the violence inflicted in the name of ‘public order’. Protesters’ statements collated in the Report speak of the terror experienced from policing operations, including mounted police charging through the protest and the use of dog squads. The Report documents physical injuries sustained in the policing of Occupy Melbourne, cuts, grazes and bruises as well as serious injuries including broken noses, black eyes and back injuries. It also documents longer-term psychological effects. ‘For a while I would feel a wave of anxiety/panic come over me whenever I walked past or saw a police officer’, Sasha, 25, told the OMLST. The Report also argues that such violence has broader political effects in that it has a ‘stifling’ effect and acts as a deterrent to people joining and participating in movements for progressive social change.

The Report examines the various legal bases used to justify the eviction of Occupy Melbourne; breaches of local law; trespass in a public place; common law ‘breach of the peace’ powers, and; controversial statutory ‘Move-On’ powers. The Report finds that none of these bases are substantiated, and that the forceful removal of Occupy Melbourne protesters by Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council appears to have been unlawful.

These findings endorse the comments made by Liberty Victoria President Spencer Zifcak who described the legal grounds relied upon by Melbourne City Council and Victoria Police as ‘flimsy’ and ‘uncertain’. Its analysis highlights the problematic nature of police use of breach of the peace powers to justify repressive action, and points to how breach of the peace powers give police large amounts of discretion and have been used by police to instigate ‘order’ and suppress dissent, especially because these laws are difficult to challenge on the spot.

The use of force in removing Occupy Melbourne protesters from City Square and policing the subsequent protest in the Central Business District shocked the national and international community. Occupy Melbourne protesters were the first in the Occupy movement globally to be subjected to a violent policing intervention. The Report argues that there is ample evidence available as a matter of public record of excessive and unnecessary use of force. The Report documents police use of bodily force such as grabbing and dragging protesters by the neck, legs, arms; throwing and pushing protesters to the ground; punching and kicking protesters, including in the face; use of chokeholds and pressure points; and kneeing protesters in the face and groin. It further argues that such use of force arguably breaches legislative restrictions on the use of force including Victoria Police’s own internal guidelines and that individual police officers need to be held accountable for these breaches. The Report also documents the use of chokeholds, horses and OC spray in ways which were both harmful and arguably in breach of internal guidelines.

Through the course of the morning much larger numbers of Melbournians gathered in the Central Business District. Some gathered to support, some to observe, and some to demonstrate against the forcible removal and policing of Occupy Melbourne. Between 11:45 and approximately 5pm, this protest was pushed by police up Swanston Street, along Lonsdale and Russell Streets. During the afternoon, police used ‘snatch squads’ to grab people—some who appeared to be protest ‘leaders’ and others who were simply bystanders on their lunch break—from the street. Over the afternoon, approximately 100 people were taken into police custody. Protesters were taken to police stations including St Kilda, Heidelberg, St Kilda Road, North Melbourne, Moonee Ponds, Altona, Melbourne Custody Centre and Moorabbin. Others protesters were held for shorter periods. Some protesters were driven away from the Central Business District and released in seemingly random locations, including a paddock in Altona. A large proportion of protesters were held in custody for many hours, both in brawler vans and at police stations across Melbourne. The conditions of confinement were inadequate. The Report argues police were arguably acting outside of their legitimate power and internal guidelines in detaining people pursuant to ‘breach of the peace’ powers. It finds that the actions of police in detaining approximately 100 people on 21 October 2011 may well have exceeded their lawful powers and constituted false imprisonment.

One year after the events of the eviction, as far as the OMLST has been able to ascertain, no protesters have been charged with trespass or with any violent offences relating to 21 October 2011. One year later, the authorities which authorised the eviction and the policing operation have not been held accountable for their actions, individual police officers who acted contrary to guidelines on use of force also have yet to be held accountable for their actions. One year later, it is urgently time for an independent investigation to document and assess the events of the 21 October 2011 in order to authorise such accountability processes. As Tamar Hopkin, Principle Solicitor, Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre writes in her forward to the Report, such an independent inquiry is ‘not only necessary to restore the community’s faith that the rule of law still operates in Victoria, but is required under international human rights law where allegations of human rights abuses have been made.’

The Report can be downloaded from the Resources page here.

Julia Dehm and Sara Dehm