Several times this week, protesters have forced Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to abandon programs aimed at supporting the COVID vaccination rollout.
Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have gathered to protest against lockdowns and vaccination mandates, in violation of COVID restrictions and public health measures. The PM has described such protests as “clearly illegal” and “morally wrong”.
As Delta infections increase and many businesses now face compulsory vaccination as part of a campaign to achieve 90% vaccination rates, the protests are likely to expand.
But with the amendment taking effect this month, penalties will also be imposed for willful violation of COVID orders. A person who knowingly fails to comply with sanctions may face a fine of up to NZ$12,000 (more than $4,000) or up to six months in prison. Failure to wear a mask increases the maximum fine to $4,000 (from $300).
importance of protest
Protesting is part of Aotearoa’s identity. New Zealanders have protested poverty, war, nuclear weapons, gender inequality and the loss of Māori land and customary rights. Several protests – including those against the 1981 Springbok tour – have left the nation divided.
Although there is no specific right to protest in the law, protest is an expression of the rights to freedom of movement, association and peaceful assembly. Globally, these rights are protected by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ensuing framework of human rights treaties. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 guarantees these rights.
But irrespective of the legal basis of the right to protest, the specific protest action must be in accordance with the law. They must not be unnecessarily disorderly, violent or insecure.
Read more: COVID-19 ‘freedom’ rallies actually undermine freedom – here’s why
no right to protest
Restrictions on the right to protest can be seen in the criminalization of certain conduct. For example, if someone behaves in a public place in an objectionable manner, they could be fined $1,000. Indecent or obscene words can cost up to $500.
If the behavior becomes disorderly by rioting, threatening or encouraging others to behave in a violent manner, the fine can be up to $2,000 and up to three months in prison.
Threatening or actual assault of a police officer can result in a fine of $6,000 or up to six months in prison. A normal attack on other civilians carries the same penalty. Intentional property damage can cost a protester up to $2,000, which is the same as graffiti. Obstructing a public road without the right of authority can result in a fine of up to $1,000.
Even excessive noise or the burning of the national flag, if done in a particularly aggressive manner with the intention of insulting it, can have repercussions for the protestor.
Limits on crowd size
COVID regulations also currently restrict the right to peaceful assembly. These restrictions are justified by the need to protect public health, which is recognized in international law. However, any such restrictive measures should be aimed specifically at preventing the disease.
While New Zealand’s Alert Level 4 was very strict, Alert Level 3 is slightly more lenient. Currently, Aucklanders are still expected to stay at home, with exceptions for those who cannot work from home. Most events cannot go ahead, except for weddings, civil unions, funerals and ten-person gatherings at Tangihanga.
Starting next week, when restrictions are expected to be further eased, Aucklanders will enjoy the freedom of large outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people. Some shops will also open.
The question now is how the authorities should respond to the growing protests, some of which may involve illegal activity in case of violation of the above orders. The guiding principles for police are that they must act to ensure public support and trust, remain independent and impartial and act professionally, ethically and with integrity.
Read more: Public protest or selfish rat? Why free speech doesn’t give you the right to put other people’s health at risk
importance of patience
As with any interference to uphold the law, the police must consider maintaining the peace and maintaining public safety as well as reassuring the community.
In Australia, some COVID protests have gotten out of hand and police responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. With very few exceptions, this approach is absolutely wrong. The guiding principle in the use of force in the face of opposition should be maximum restraint.
Emphasis should be placed on reducing stressful and volatile situations. The decision to intervene should be taken at the highest level of the police force only when there is no other means to protect public order from the imminent risk of violence.
This does not mean that law breakers should not be brought to justice. They should – but after the event, not during. Although rules can be broken, non-aggressive crowds of protesters should not be scattered unnecessarily.
The current strategy of identifying law breakers and bringing them to justice later for their illegal activity is right and appropriate for a country that values law and order along with the importance of protest.