WASHINGTON — The United Nations envoy for freedom of expression is drafting an official communication to the U.S. government demanding to know why federal officials are not protecting the rights of Occupy demonstrators whose protests are being disbanded — sometimes violently — by local authorities.
Frank La Rue, who serves as the U.N. “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, told HuffPost in an interview that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human and constitutional rights.
“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said Thursday. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”
“If I were going to pit a city ordinance against human rights, I would always take human rights,” he continued.
La Rue, a longtime Guatemalan human rights activist who has held his U.N. post for three years, said it’s clear to him that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”
In moments of crisis, governments often default to a forceful response instead of a dialogue, he said — but that’s a mistake.
“Citizens have the right to dissent with the authorities, and there’s no need to use public force to silence that dissension,” he said.
“One of the principles is proportionality,” La Rue said. “The use of police force is legitimate to maintain public order — but there has to be a danger of real harm, a clear and present danger. And second, there has to be a proportionality of the force employed to prevent a real danger.”
And history suggests that harsh tactics against social movements don’t work anyway, he said. In Occupy’s case, he said, “disbanding them by force won’t change that attitude of indignation.”
Occupy encampments across the country have been forcibly removed by police in full riot gear, and some protesters have been badly injured as a result of aggressive police tactics.
New York police staged a night raid on the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in mid-November, evicting sleeping demonstrators and confiscating vast amounts of property.
The Oakland Police Department fired tear gas, smoke grenades and bean-bag rounds at demonstrators there in late October, seriously injuring one Iraq War veteran at the Occupy site.
Earlier this week, Philadelphia and Los Angeles police stormed the encampments in their cities in the middle of the night, evicting and arresting hundreds of protesters.
Protesters at University of California, Davis were pepper sprayed by a campus police officer in November while participating in a sit-in, and in September an officer in New York pepper sprayed protesters who were legally standing on the sidewalk.
“We’re seeing widespread violations of fundamental First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-chair of a National Lawyers Guild committee, which has sent hundreds of volunteers to provide legal representation to Occupations across the nation.
“The demonstrations are treated as if they’re presumptively criminal,” she said. “Instead of looking at free speech activity as an honored and cherished right that should be supported and facilitated, the reaction of local authorities and police is very frequently to look at it as a crime scene.”
What they should do, Verheyden-Hilliard said, is make it their mission to allow the activity to continue.
Using the same lens placed on the Occupy movement to look at, say, the protest in Egypt, Verheyden-Hilliard said, observers would have focused on such issues as “Did the people in Tahrir Square have a permit?”
La Rue said the protesters are raising and addressing a fundamental issue. “There is legitimate reason to be indignant and angry about a crisis that was originated by greed and the personal interests of certain sectors,” he said. That’s especially the case when the bankers “still earn very hefty salaries and common folks are losing their homes.”
“In this case, the demonstrations are going to the center of the issue,” he said. “These demonstrations are exactly challenging the basis of the debate.”
Indeed, commentators such as Robert Scheer have argued that the Occupy movement’s citizen action has a particular justification, based on the government’s abject failure to hold banks accountable.
La Rue said he sees parallels between Occupy and the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests. In both cases, for instance, “you have high level of education for young people, but no opportunities.”
La Rue said he is in the process of writing what he called “an official communication” to the U.S. government “to ask what exactly is the position of the federal government in regards to understanding the human rights and constitutional rights vis-a-vis the use of local police and local authorities to disband peaceful demonstrations.”
Although the letter will not carry any legal authority, it reflects how the violent suppression of dissent threatens to damage the U.S.’s international reputation.
“I think it’s a dangerous spot in the sense of a precedent,” La Rue said, expressing concern that the United States risks losing its credibility as a model democracy, particularly if the excessive use of force against peaceful protests continues.
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman welcomed the international scrutiny.
“We live in a much smaller, connected world than we ever did before, and just as Americans watch what goes on in Tahrir Square and in Syria, the whole world is watching us, too — and that’s a good thing,” Lieberman said.
“We’re kind of confident that we’re living in the greatest democracy in the world, but when the international human rights world criticizes an American police officer for pepper spraying students who are sitting down, it rightly give us pause.”
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page, subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.