Saturday, November 27

Protesting in a pandemic: New Zealand’s balancing act between a long tradition of protests and Covid rules

By Alexander Gillespie, Claire Breen of The conversation

The conversation

Several times this week, protesters have forced Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to abandon events aimed at supporting the launch of the Covid vaccination.

Anti-vaccination protesters at a mobile vaccination clinic in Whanganui, where the prime minister was supposed to speak.

Anti-vaccination protesters at a mobile vaccination clinic in Whanganui, where the prime minister was supposed to speak.
Photo: RNZ / Sam Rillstone

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have gathered, in violation of Covid restrictions and public health measures, to protest the closures and vaccination mandates. The prime minister has described these protests as “obviously illegal” and “morally wrong”.

As Delta infections rise and several professions now face mandatory vaccination as part of the drive to reach 90 percent of vaccination rates, protests are likely to expand.

But so will the penalties for intentional breach of Covid orders as the amendments go into effect this month. A person who intentionally fails to comply with the restrictions could face fines of up to NZ $ 12,000 (compared to $ 4000) or six months in prison. The maximum fine for not wearing a mask where it is mandatory increases to $ 4000 (from $ 300).

The importance of protests

The protest is part of Aotearoa’s identity. New Zealanders have protested poverty, war, nuclear weapons, gender inequality, and the loss of Maori land and customary rights. Various protests, including those against the 1981 Springbok tour, have divided the nation.

Although there is no specific right to protest in law, protesting is a manifestation of the rights to freedom of movement, association, and peaceful assembly. At the global level, these rights are protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the framework resulting from human rights treaties. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the New Zealand Rights Act 1990 guarantees these rights.

But despite the legal foundations of the right to protest, specific protest actions must be in accordance with the law. They should not be excessively messy, violent, or unsafe.

No right to protest disorderly

Restrictions on the right to protest can be seen in the criminalization of certain behaviors. For example, if someone behaves offensively in a public place, they could face a fine of $ 1000. Indecent or obscene words can cost up to $ 500.

The fine could amount to $ 2,000 and three months in prison if the behavior becomes disorderly by acting or encouraging others to behave in an unrestrained, threatening or violent manner.

Threatening a police officer or committing an actual assault could result in a $ 6,000 fine or six months in prison. Common assault on other citizens carries the same penalty. Intentionally damaging property could cost a protester up to $ 2,000, the same as graffiti. Obstruction of a public road without the correct authority can result in a fine of $ 1000.

Even excessive noise or the burning of the national flag, if done in a particularly offensive manner with the intention of disgracing it, could have repercussions for the protester.

Limits on crowd size

Covid rules also currently restrict the right of peaceful assembly. These restrictions have been justified by the need to protect public health, recognized in international law. However, these restrictive measures must be specifically aimed at preventing disease.

While New Zealand’s Alert Level 4 was very strict, Alert Level 3 is a bit more liberal. At present, Auckland residents are still expected to stay at home, with exceptions for those who cannot work from home. Most events cannot continue, except for gatherings of ten at weddings, civil unions, funerals, and tangihanga.

Starting next week, when restrictions are expected to ease further, Auckland residents will enjoy the freedom of larger outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people. Some stores will also reopen.

The question now is how the authorities should respond to the growing protests, some of which may involve illegal activities, in terms of non-compliance with previous orders. The guiding principles of the police are that they must act to ensure the support and trust of the public, remain independent and impartial, and act professionally, ethically and with integrity.

The importance of moderation

With any law enforcement intervention, the police should consider maintaining public peace and safety, as well as reassuring the community.

Police confront protesters in Melbourne.

Police confront protesters in Melbourne.
Photo: AFP

In Australia, some Covid protests have spiraled out of control, with police responding with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. With very few exceptions, this approach is absolutely wrong. The guiding principle should be the utmost restraint in the use of force when confronting protests.

The emphasis should be on reducing tense and volatile situations. The decision to intervene should only be made at the highest level of the police force, when there is no other means to protect public order from an imminent risk of violence.

This is not to say that those who violate the laws should not be brought to justice. They should, but after the event, not during it. Although the rules can be broken, non-aggressive crowds of protesters should not disperse unnecessarily.

The current tactic of identifying rule breakers and later bringing them to justice for their illegal activity is correct and appropriate for a country that values ​​the importance of protests as well as public order.

The conversation

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