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Legal observers are individuals, usually representatives of civilian human rights agencies, who attend public demonstrations, protests and other activities where there is a potential for conflict between the public or activists and the police, security guards or other law enforcement personnel. The purpose of legal observers is to monitor, record and report on any unlawful or improper behaviour by the police. 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. Legal observers can write incident reports describing police violence and misbehaviour and compile reports after the event. As observers, they are more removed and thus better able to objectively and independently describe events. The use of video and still cameras, incident reports and audio recorders is common. Photo and video coverage of the action can help to deter police violence and provide valuable evidence later.[1]

Monitoring is an established method of improving the protection of human rights. The principal objective of legal or human rights monitoring is to reinforce State responsibility to protect human rights.[2] Most human rights observer missions are instigated at some level by non-governmental organisations. In 1999 the United Nations acknowledged the important role and the valuable work of individuals, groups and associations in contributing to the effective elimination of violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also stressed in the same declaration that the prime responsibility and duty to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lie with the State.[1]

Legal Observer Teams record observations and collect information for immediate action and later use. They can communicate the information to the appropriate authorities or other bodies. Legal Observer teams not only observe developments, collect information, and perceive patterns of conduct, but should also identify problems, diagnose their causes and recommend courses of action and potential solutions. The goal of a Legal Observer Team is to ensure and enhance the civil, political and human rights of community members at the protests by monitoring, recording and reporting on any abuses of these rights. Monitoring demonstrations can be one of the most difficult tasks for Observers. The Observer's presence is intended to ensure that rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are upheld. Yet the role of the Observer may be complicated by the actions of the demonstrating crowd and law enforcement officials.

The mandate of the legal observer team should not be affected by the legality or illegality of the actions of protesters under domestic law. Observers only express opinions on protester behaviour or action insofar as it relates to the responses of police or other state authorities. However, when commenting on the actions or non-actions of police personnel or state authorities it is seen as important to place each incident in its appropriate and relevant context.

It is fair to say that most legal observers have an explicit commitment to supporting domestic or international human rights including the right to peaceful assembly, which is guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United States Constitution and other national and international human rights treaties or conventions. Legal Observer teams also draw upon domestic laws and police procedural documents for their mandate.

It is thought that the concept of using legal observers first emerged during protests in the 1930s in the East End of London, where police agents provocateurs were used during protests by the British Union of Fascists (BUF). There were large counter-protests and it was alleged that the police sided with the BUF. Another case of legal observing was that carried out by the Black Panthers in the United States.

Legal observers were used by Liberty (then known as the National Council for Civil Liberties) in Wapping, London, during the mid-1980s. The Wapping demonstration was in response to large protests by labour unions against the industrial relations policies of media magnate, Rupert Murdoch. However, the modern revival of Legal Observers seems generally to have begun about 2000, when there were large public protests in Europe, North America and Australia. The more recent wave of legal observers participation has been a direct response to what is perceived to be more aggressive policing by law enforcement agencies.

Legal observers are associated with such groups as the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union (both USA), Liberty (UK), the G8 Legal Collective (Scotland), and others. In Australia in the 1970's, priests acted as legal observers during the large Moratorium Marches against the Vietnam War. In September 2000, Pt'chang Nonviolent Community Safety Group organised a large Legal Observer Team for the S11 (protest) againsts the World Economic Forum in Melbourne.[3] In Sydney, the Legal Observers Project, formally based at the Community Law Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, and re-named Human Rights Monitors, was established in April 2001. This group reformed as Sydney Copwatch in 2009[4].

See also




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