A United Nations human rights expert is recommending changes in the way protests are handled in the United States, saying the process of issuing permits for demonstrations is "arbitrary" and could easily lead to discrimination against certain groups.
Maina Kiai of Kenya, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, offered preliminary findings Wednesday from his visits this month to seven U.S. cities — including the sites of this year's Democratic and Republican political conventions — to investigate how the U.S. upholds its citizens' rights of assembly and association. Kiai's full report to the United Nations will be completed and published in June 2017.
The first issue Kiai addressed involved permits and other requirements set by the government in order to protest. Such restrictions, he said, should meet standards set by international law, which recommends a system by which citizens notify the authorities when they will assemble, rather than the government having to grant permission.
The United States "has these time, place and manner restrictions that have been authorized by courts and authorities" where protests are concerned, he said, "and these will not necessarily conform with international law."
"When you require permits, when you require permission, then you turn the right into a privilege," Kiai said. "Rights do not need permission from anyone to be exercised."
Kiai also expressed concern about dealings between police and protesters, and warned of over-policing and militarization. He urged that police restrict arrests and punishment to those who act outside of the law, saying the presence of such people does not take away the rights of those who are assembled peacefully.
"It is absolutely, manifestly unwise to go into a largely peaceful, grieving crowd with riot gear, random arrests, flimsy charges, rough physical handling, verbal insults and other things like that," Kiai said. "It is not only a right of the violation of peaceful assembly, but it is dangerous to participants, the general public and to police officers."
During his visit, Kiai went to Baltimore; Cleveland; Ferguson, Missouri; Jackson, Mississippi; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Phoenix. He said he had "a long, good meeting" about police reform with officials from the Justice Department's civil rights division, and called for strengthening the agency's ability to continue pursuing such reforms.