The protests at Linden have transfixed the nation over the past month. Now that, hopefully, the agreement brokered after hard negotiations between the government and the Region 10 representatives will be signed today, there is the danger that protests may spread to other areas.
There have already been calls by the WPA for the Linden protests to be replicated on the Coast. The new demands from this quarter is that the government must be removed ‘by any means necessary’ by year’s end.
Whatever we may think about the demand, it is very likely that there might be a copycat effect, as other disgruntled Regions pick up cudgels against the government.
A few years ago, Juan E. Méndez, a law professor, an Adviser on crime prevention to the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, and former President of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and Special Adviser to Kofi Annan on the Prevention of Genocide, offered a perspective on protests.
“For the billions of powerless in today’s world, protest is the only way to have their voices heard. That is why international human rights law places a very high premium on freedom of speech, association and assembly, all of them broadly understood.
Vibrant, live democracies are those where all citizens believe they have a stake in the outcomes, and consequently feel compelled to voice their opinions through the vehicles available to them. It is no wonder that the politics of protest are livelier in countries that are emerging from tyranny.
What does protest achieve? The agenda of protesters must be such that can be achieved through genuine debate in a democratic society. At the same time, rarely, if ever, is that agenda adopted in full the way protesters envision it; and rightly so, because policy is formulated through the interaction of many opinions and not as a result of pressure.
Often, protest is a way of preventing some policy option that is considered unfair, and frequently the option is at least modified in view of the protest. So demonstrations may never completely succeed in achieving the goals of the demonstrators; they succeed in allowing them to participate in the process of policy formulation and decision-making, and participation is the democratic ideal.
Undoubtedly, protest must abide by rules of peaceful coexistence and reasonable regulation. Farmers in Argentina had every right to protest against export taxes (whether the taxes were fair or unfair in the overall context is another matter); but they had no right to block highways and impede the access of food products to the markets.
Protests should indeed grow in frequency and intensity as necessary, even to the point of bringing down a repressive or unrepresentative government; but they must stop short of forcing a duly elected leader from office.
Just as there is a threshold of “legitimacy of exercise” that should be demanded of elected leaders, so also demonstrators must exercise their freedoms of speech and assembly within the constraints of legitimacy of both means and ends.
Ultimately, protest works if it intelligently combines speech with action and a genuine attempt to persuade rather than simply antagonize. Under such premises, protest will continue to be a viable, indispensable ingredient of democracy for generations to come.”
We believe that the above is very sage advice for the leaders of groups that might want to take to the streets in protest. First and foremost we must allow our democratic institutions to function and only if they are being stymied by groups with inordinate power, should groups take to the streets.
The last elections demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that while our democracy may not be perfect (which one is?) at least we are able to impose the ultimate sanction against our political elite at the polls.
It is our considered judgement that calls for the removal of the government by ‘non-peaceful means’, such as has recently been made, when democratic recourse at the polls are available, are unnecessarily tendentious and must be condemned by all well meaning Guyanese.