The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association to advance climate justice, from the perspective of museums

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and of association asked for submissions on how the rights of peaceful assembly and association were being upheld, in relation to climate change and climate action. I put together a submission, with contributions from Culture Unstained, Museums for Future and the Climate Museum (New York).

You can download the full submission here:

I said I would also share the submission with the museum sector, to help people better understand how museums relate to these rights, and how they can support people to claim their rights. You can find the sources of the quotations in the submission.

The request for information included the following background:

“For decades people around the world have organized in associations, formal and informal, to tackle climate change and support effective and equitable measures that would guard against the dangers of global warming. Such associations have produced and analyzed scientific data; helped shape policies based on their technical expertise; fostered collaboration among key stakeholders; helped communities to adapt to climate change impacts; ensured that the voices of marginalized and at-risk populations are taken into account and shed light on issues affecting these populations, and pushed for urgent action, including by organizing demonstrations and peaceful protests.

But over these years the global community’s response to climate change has been unacceptably slow, with many governments intentionally delaying action or denying climate change altogether. This inaction has triggered a new wave of global activism calling for greater ambition now. While the movement is intergenerational and diverse, women and children; indigenous peoples in both the global North and South, and nonviolent protesters have emerged as a new force for action.

This growing global climate justice movement has had remarkable achievements in the last five years. It has transformed the global discourse on climate change; it has led to the adoption of ambitious climate change policies in some countries; and it has raised awareness of the need to increase children, women and indigenous people’s participation into climate change policy making. However, the movement has been met with fierce repression from governments and the private sector. This repression has taken many forms, from protest bans and laws criminalizing legitimate acts of peaceful assembly, to attempts to paint climate defenders as “eco-terrorists,” to online harassment and physical persecution. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the existent restrictions on climate and environmental defenders as states have been enacting emergency measures that further enhance their powers. There is a danger that such new powers and restrictions may outlast the pandemic and may become the new norm.”

Assembly, association and protest are used synonymously in the submission. Protest is used to refer to peaceful means of criticism and dissent, and that should be protected as part of people’s rights.

Public participation as an essential element of climate action
David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on the Right to a Healthy Environment, has noted:
“Transforming society to achieve a good quality of life for all in harmony with nature requires scaling up biodiversity conservation, large-scale restoration of degraded ecosystems, a rapid clean energy transition, shifting to a circular economy, decreased material consumption by wealthy individuals and reforming supply chains to reduce environmental impacts. Employing a rights-based approach could serve as a catalyst for
accelerated action. History demonstrates – through the progress achieved by abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights activists and indigenous peoples – the powerful role of human rights in sparking transformative societal changes.”

Participation in climate change matters has already been acknowledged as crucial for climate action by signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (article 6) and Paris Agreement (article 12). Public participation ensures “that people can participate effectively in climate change decision-making… governments should seek to integrate civil society perspectives and mobilize the general public. In some places, this will prompt profound changes to how political leaders and civil servants are accustomed to working and encourage people to be more attentive to policy-making.”

A number of studies have explored how museums can broker public participation around science-policy agendas. In a study by Bandelli and Konijns (2015), results “suggest that science centres and museums are regarded by their visitors as potential platforms to facilitate public participation in policy, especially in countries where the general infrastructure for public participation in science is weak.” In another study, Kadlec (2017) noted “As trusted, nonpartisan intermediary organizations and valued cultural institutions, museums and science centers are well positioned to frame important problems for productive public deliberation, and they may be uniquely equipped to help cultivate creative connections between policymakers, scientists and the general public… museums can impact civic issues on wide-scales without becoming politicized, and thus promote improved public problem-solving around vexing problems such as climate change, our energy future, and twenty-first century workforce development.” Public participation may take many forms, and peaceful protest and assembly may be considered as aspects of public participation in climate change matters.

In the submission, I made the following recommendations regarding assembly and association in relation to climate change and museums.

• Museum authorities, funders and government agencies and departments can ensure that their interventions, policies, reporting requirements and funding conditions are in compliance with their human rights obligations regarding people’s civil and political, social and cultural rights, including freedom of assembly and association, and expression, and foster an empowering, rather than disabling or disempowering environment.
• Museums and museum organisations (eg. sector-support and funding organisations) can take greater account of human rights and human rights-based approaches, including reports and recommendations by relevant Special Rapporteurs and General Comment guidance notes (see section 3 of the submission), as a basis for decision making, based on internationally recognised and agreed human rights standards.
• Museums and museum organisations should embrace the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into their codes of practice, as a ready-made template to better understand and fulfil human rights obligations, and guide decision-making so it is transparent, effective and transformative.
• Museums can use the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030 as a ready-made framework to promote a culture of peace, tolerance and partnership in seeking to create a better future, based on universal respect for human rights and in a safe and thriving natural environment, and Disaster Risk Reduction approaches to reduce tensions.
• Museums and museum organisations can support their staff and members to properly understand and fulfil their obligations under human rights and national laws, in terms of supporting peaceful protest and association, and to avoid self-censorship that arises from a low level of understanding or confidence in working with human rights and human rights-based approaches.
• Museums can help empower everyone – including visitors and non-visitors – to know and claim their rights, including on peaceful assembly and of association, through supporting Education for Sustainable Development, and Global Citizenship Education pedagogies. They can also educate and inform people about climate change impacts and human rights abuses worldwide relating to climate injustice and inaction, including human rights abuses against Indigenous and local peoples, killings of environmental defenders, and aggressive actions by fossil fuel industries. Education is not only about information, but empowering people to have skills to make use of democratic processes.

Published by Henry McGhie

I have set up Curating Tomorrow as a new business. I know that lots of people, organisations and networks care about the communities they are based in, broader social issues and the natural environment. Curating Tomorrow takes museum-based skills of curating, and applies them to the wider world. It is about helping people and organisations move farther, faster, together to build a better world.

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