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Protect your protest 

  • Ensuring safety during peaceful protests

Amidst the economic and political crisis, a series of protests commonly known as the “Aragalaya” is underway across the island. While the general public is joining this peaceful protest, there have been several incidents of mob violence which the Government had to deploy military forces to bring them under control. Inevitably, the peaceful protestors also had to face these unforeseen chaotic situations. In several instances, peaceful protestors were injured as the struggles suddenly turned into violence. 

It is important for the peaceful protestors to know how to ensure their safety in both legal and medical aspects. The Morning spoke to Attorney-at-Law (AAL) Lakshika Rathnayake and Asia Pacific Academic Consortium for Public Health (APACPH) Secretary General Prof. Indika Karunathilake to obtain facts about this context. 

Following are excerpts from the interview: 

Know your rights to protest

Sri Lanka has a well-known history of protests as means of ventilating grievances, and for demanding accountability and recognition for rights and freedom. This right to protest is recognised under Article 14(1)(b) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which guarantees that every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly. It also recognises the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of association as an important feature of a democratic society.

Speech and expression can extend to forms of expression other than oral or verbal placards, picketing, wearing of black armbands, burning of draft cards, display of a flag, badge, banner or device, wearing of a jacket bearing a statement, etc. As per the judgement of Justice Mark Fernando in the Jana Ghosha case held in 1992, drumming, clapping and other sounds, however unmusical or discordant, in the context of the Jana Ghosha, also can be regarded as “speech and expression”. 

Further, Sri Lanka is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides for the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The Constitution of Sri Lanka also contains restrictions which apply to members of the armed forces, Police, and other forces in their exercise of this right. Avoiding use of power and using minimum force is highlighted in the Police Ordinance as well. Hence, the peaceful protestors have the freedom from excessive use of force.

Peaceful protestors are entitled for the freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. If you are arrested, you have a right to be told of the reason for your arrest. If you are a woman, a woman officer should present at the arrest and you have the right to reject your arrest otherwise. In an incident of an arrest, you always have the right to obtain legal representation. If any of these rights have been violated, you have the right to complaint and to be provided information. 

As per the human rights and as a state policy, if you are injured you have a right to obtain medical assistance without delay.

Limitations for peaceful assembly

The Constitution of Sri Lanka also provides for limited instances in which the freedom of peaceful assembly can be restricted. As per Article 15(3), it shall be subjected to restrictions in the interests of racial and religious harmony, national security, public order, protection of public health or morality, securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others. 

Preparation before the protest 

Before committing to participate in a protest, ensure it represents your values. It is vital to ensure that its leaders prioritise non-violence and have experience with de-escalation strategies. If you are experiencing any symptoms such as fever, muscle aches or feeling unwell, avoid attending the protest. You should always inform your family or a trustworthy friend on where you are going. The best is to go with a friend or a small group of friends and make sure you have everyone’s contact information. Some people find that writing these numbers on their bodies with a permanent marker is the best option in the event someone’s phone gets lost or broken.

Prior to the protest, discuss where you will meet if you get dispersed and how you plan to exit the protest area if things turn chaotic. If you are not able to attend the protest but still want to support your friends, you could offer to be their remote contact to attend if something happens, like they get injured or arrested.

Prepare yourself with the essential items such as a plastic bottle of water (which will be helpful for flushing of eyes and skin, if there is an exposure to tear gas), energy snacks, ID card and emergency contact information, some cash to pay for food and transportation, hand sanitisers, tissues, sanitary napkins, a basic first-aid kit and the medicines if you are on any long-term medications. It’s important to pack light, because you will likely have to walk a long distance or even run.

Fully charge your phone, and consider bringing an extra battery or a power bank. While it’s a good idea to bring your phone in case of an emergency, take preventive measures for protecting your digital privacy. 

What to wear to a protest

It is always safer to wear clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and fully covered shoes that are comfortable are the most appropriate to wear in a protest. If you are protesting in an area where there is a risk of exposure to tear gas, it is advisable to wear protective goggles. Shatter-resistant eye protectors such as swimming goggles, sun glasses, gas masks, and N95 face masks would be useful in protecting from exposure to tear gas. Wearing a hat will protect you from the sun and help cover your face. 

Do not wear contact lenses, eye makeup or jewellery. Avoid applying Vaseline, mineral oil, oil-based sunscreen or moisturiser on skin as they can trap chemicals. Do not wear contact lenses since they can trap chemicals underneath causing irritation in your eyes. Avoid wearing things which can easily be grabbed (eg: ties, shawls, jewellery, loose hair, etc.)

Safety while protesting 

Those leading the events typically have years of on-the-ground organising experience. Look to them to start chants, guide marches along specific routes, and notify the group of any concerns. Above all, respect organisers’ requests, such as not to damage property. Stay vigilant. While you may have every intention to demonstrate peacefully, realise that protests have the potential to become unsafe all in a sudden. With tensions high, stay aware and take notice of those around you and how they are behaving. Avoid engaging with counter protesters, who are often the source of escalation.  

Stay focused and aware of your surroundings at all times. Keep an eye on the exits, should you need to leave quickly. Taking photos and videos at a protest can help spread a movement’s message and capture any violations of your rights. However, it is important to protect the privacy of fellow protestors by refraining from posting photos or videos in which others can be identified. 

Be mindful of Covid-19 safety measures. Wear a mask and avoid touching your face. Try to maintain physical distancing. Don’t shake hands, hug, share drinks or engage in long face-to-face conversations. Cover your cough and sneeze into your elbow. Keep yourself well hydrated by frequently drinking water. 

Dealing with riot control agents

Riot control agents, commonly referred to as “tear gas” are chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin. Several different compounds are considered to be riot control agents and the most common compounds are known as chloroacetophenone (CN) and chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS).

Since these agents could be in liquid form or powder form, riot control agents such as CN and CS could be released in the air as fine droplets or particles. If agents are released into the air, people could be exposed to them through skin contact, eye contact, or breathing.

The extent of damage caused by riot control agents depends on the amount of riot control agent to which a person was exposed, the location of exposure (indoors vs outdoors), how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure.

Riot control agents work by causing irritation to the area of contact; for example, eyes, skin and nose. The effects will appear within seconds of exposure and are usually short-lived, lasting for about 15-30 minutes after the person has been removed from the source and washed off.

Signs and symptoms of exposure to a riot control agents

People exposed to riot control agents may experience some or all of the following symptoms immediately after exposure:

  • Eyes: excessive tearing, burning, blurred vision, redness
  • Nose: runny nose, burning, swelling
  • Mouth: burning, irritation, difficulty swallowing, drooling
  • Lungs: chest tightness, coughing, choking sensation, noisy breathing (wheezing), shortness of breath
  • Skin: burns, rash
  • Other symptoms: nausea and vomiting

Exposure to riot control agents for a longer duration or exposure to a large dose of riot control agent, especially in a closed setting, may cause serious effects such as blindness, glaucoma (a serious eye condition that can lead to blindness) and even respiratory failure leading to death. 

Protecting yourself, if exposed to riot control agents

Since inhalation is likely to be the primary route of exposure, leave the area where the riot control agents were released and get into fresh air as soon as possible. This measure is highly effective in reducing exposure to riot control agents. If the release of riot control agents was indoors, get out of the building immediately. Go to the highest ground possible, because riot control agents will form a dense vapour cloud that can travel closer to the ground.

The physical symptoms of chemical irritants often may result in disorientation and agitation, which can lead to a state of fear, anxiety, and panic. This could happen, since a lot is happening rapidly and too swift for your mind to be able to create a cohesive narrative about the incident. Being mindful, staying calm and breathing slowly will be helpful to keep yourself safe.

If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10-15 minutes. If you are wearing contact lenses, remove them immediately and do not wear them back. If wearing eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water and you can wear them back after washing.

Wash out any riot control agent from your skin, with large amounts of soap and water, as quickly as possible. Washing with soap and water will help you protect from any chemical skin irritations. 

Taking care of yourself after protesting 

Change your clothes as soon as possible, shower and disinfect your belongings. Continue to take care of your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Be always mindful, not to share any photos or videos of protestors on social media as it is important to protect the identities of others. We still have to be conscious of Covid-19. Hence, monitor yourself for any symptoms and contact a doctor if symptoms develop.  

(The writer is a Medical Officer at the Directorate of Healthcare Quality and Safety, Ministry of Health)