27 June 2010

Toronto and the G8/G20: Peaceful protest suffers amidst heavy security measures and acts of vandalism

As the Annual General Meeting of Amnesty International Canada (English branch) concluded today in Toronto, Amnesty International members from across the country expressed their very deep concern that important rights associated with peaceful protest have suffered considerably in the city over the weekend.

In connection with the G20 leaders summit, the heavy police and security presence that has permeated the city for several days, as well as acts of vandalism and other violence by numbers of individuals, have contributed to an atmosphere of apprehension and fearfulness that has led many individuals to refrain from or limit their involvement in peaceful demonstrations and other activities.

At a time when the public should be encouraged to actively engage in debate and discussion about pressing global issues, the security measures that were put in place in Toronto in the lead up to the G20 Summit held in the city instead narrowed the space for civic expression and cast a chill over citizen participation in public discourse. Many thousands of individuals did take part in public events such as the “People First” demonstration during the afternoon of June 26, but felt apprehensive while doing so. Many others did not take part out of a sense of unease and fearfulness.

In meeting in Toronto at the same time as G8 and G20 leaders have held their summits in Canada, Amnesty International members have sought to draw attention to important human rights issues that should be priority concerns for both bodies. We have highlighted that it is a particularly key juncture in the development of the G20 as an emerging body that will exert growing influence on world economic, political and social affairs. We have emphasized, therefore, that we look to them to take action to ensure that human rights are brought to the heart of the global effort to fight poverty, particularly through the millennium development goals. We look to them to ensure that respect for universal human rights will become the hallmark of their deliberations and decision making.

Yet at a time when human rights need so very much to come to the fore, we have instead witnessed and experienced a curtailment of civil liberties. On the streets, protesters were faced with high fences, new weaponry, massive surveillance, and the intimidating impact of the overwhelming police presence. Combined with uncertainty and worry about unclear powers of arrest, this created an atmosphere in which countless individuals felt unable or too fearful to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and participate in rallies and other events which would have offered them an opportunity to express their views on a range of important national and international issues.

We unequivocally condemn the acts of vandalism and violence that have been carried out by numbers of individuals, particularly during the evening of June 26. Such acts are criminal and undermine the safety of the many thousands of individuals involved in peaceful protest. We recognize that police have a responsibility to respond to such actions, to protect public safety, prevent damage to property, and ensure the safety of leaders and other officials attending the G20 Summit.

There are concerns, however, about possible police excesses, including reports of journalists being arrested or constrained in the course of covering confrontations between police and demonstrators. In one reported case, the journalist was apparently beaten in the course of being arrested. Nearly 500 people are reported to have been arrested, as of the morning of June 27th. Witnesses have reported that some of those arrested appear to have been engaging in peaceful protest. It has not been possible to get clear information about which tactics and weapons police have deployed in the course of securing specific areas and responding to incidents of both violence and legitimate protest. This lack of clear information has further fueled misunderstanding and fears about police actions as protests are expected to continue.

The amount of money, reported to be in excess of $1 billion, that has been spent on security measures in Toronto over the past several days has been unprecedented. Yet on one hand extensive acts of vandalism and other violence were carried out and on the other hand thousands of individuals felt nervous and uneasy about exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest.

This cannot become the hallmark of how the G20 conducts its business. Instead, we call on G20 leaders to ensure that future Summits are carried out in ways that maximize rather than restrict rights associated with peaceful protest, particularly freedom of expression and assembly.

Lessons must be learned from these events. We call on the Canadian government and the government of the province of Ontario to cooperate in launching an independent review of the security measures that were put in place for the G8 and G20 Summits. The review should include opportunities for public input and the results should be released to the public. Among other issues, the review should consider:

• The impact of security measures, including decisions about the location and venues for the two summits, on the protection of human rights, including the freedoms of expression and assembly.

• The ways in which police operations and the use of legal provisions such as the Public Works Protection Act have impacted the rights of the many thousands of people living, working and operating businesses within and near the G20 security zone.