What do human rights and legal observers do?

Published by Brent Patterson on

The founding statement of Peace Brigades International notes:

“We are forming an organization with the capability to mobilize and provide trained units of volunteers.  These units may be assigned to areas of high tension to avert violent outbreaks. If hostile clashes occur, a brigade may establish and monitor a cease-fire, offer mediatory services, or carry on works of reconstruction and reconciliation.”

Out of that founding statement emerged one of the principle activities of PBI field projects, which is to “accompany” at risk human rights defenders.

That can involve going to meetings or public events with them as a political deterrence to violence being committed against them.

PBI can also “observe” gatherings, hearings and other events.

For example, PBI-Guatemala recently observed this commemoration of the lives lost in the fire at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion shelter. PBI-Honduras also recently observed the hearing against David Castillo for the murder of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres.

As noted in this article, human rights observers can:

– help protect the basic human rights of the right to assemble and the right to free speech by being present at protests;

– send a summary of best practices on the policing of demonstrations under international standards to the heads of police departments;

– highlight that the role of law enforcement officials is to facilitate, not restrict, the right to peaceful assembly;

– document potential abuses by law enforcement in real time and share their findings via social media, including Twitter and Facebook Live broadcasts;

– if incidents of concern have occurred, file detailed reports with local, provincial and federal agencies, and the public, after the events.

This Wikipedia entry notes, “Legal or human rights observers act as an independent third party within a conflictual civil protest context, observing police behaviour in order to keep police accountable for their actions.”

That entry adds, “Legal observers can write incident reports describing police violence and misbehaviour and compile reports after the event. The use of video and still cameras, incident reports and audio recorders is common.”

Most recently, the non-violent environmental action group Extinction Rebellion has posted, “You’ll often see legal observers at demonstrations wearing bright orange bibs marked ‘Legal Observer’. Despite having no official status, legal observers have a role recognised by bodies from the Courts to the United Nations.”

Extinction Rebellion’s training for legal observers includes: “Key legal guidelines for protesters; How to take LO notes; How to monitor arrests; Legalities around Stop & Search.”

There are also groups in the UK such as Green & Black Cross (that offer legal observers, Know Your Rights workshops, and support after arrest), Netpol (that monitors the police at protests and challenges “policing which is excessive, discriminatory or threatens civil rights”) and the Activist Court Aid Brigade (that provides legal observers and “helps people through the judicial process”).

Historically, the Peace Brigades International-North America Project provided observers when requested on Indigenous territories in Canada including at events marking the anniversary of the death of Dudley George, a member of the Stoney Point Ojibway band who was killed by the Ontario Provincial Police on September 6, 1995 during a land rights protest.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has produced guides in this field, including Legal Observer Information & Training Guide.

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