Best practice and recommendations

Protest is a crucial way of expressing political will and bringing about social change. It allows for expression and dissent between, during and after election cycles in democratic states, in states that are repressive and by people whose voices are generally excluded from formal or popular discourse. Collaborative efforts are needed to ensure the sustainability and success of protest movements. There are numerous best practices that can lead to the effective exercise and facilitation of the right to protest.

This section outlines best practice and recommendations for:

Protest movements

Protest leaders

Domestic civil society organisations

International and regional civil society organisations

Law enforcement agencies




Protest movements

Be dynamic – The most effective protest movements make use of diverse, multifaceted campaigning and protest strategies. Because social situations can change so quickly in the midst of a campaign or protest, it is important to use strategies that are adaptable and put pressure on states from a number of different directions. This means that even if one strategy fails, there are others in place.

Collaborate – It is important to create strategic collaborative partnerships with other protest movements, civil society organisations, international organisations and, where appropriate, foreign states. Collaboration gives you access to information, resources and supporters that you would not otherwise have and helps to put pressure on states from different vantage points, and keep this pressure up in the long term. Partnerships can take many different forms and you should select the form most appropriate to your movement’s needs.

Choose your partners carefully – When collaborating, partners should be carefully chosen based on the purpose for which you seek to collaborate. Good partners are generally those that share a vision or goal with your movement and are willing to adapt their approaches to meet the needs of your movement. For instance, where a mass, grassroots protest against a particular issue is the goal, it would make sense to partner with other protest movements. However, where you are seeking legal advice or representation, a civil society organisation specialising in public interest law may be a more appropriate partner. Circumstances and needs should dictate your partnership choices.

Creativity is key – Effective campaigns are those that approach social problems in creative ways and put pressure on states in ways that they were not expecting. As the leader of Otpor! said in an interview (see here):

“Fighting Assad is like boxing Mike Tyson. You don’t want to box Mike Tyson. You want to challenge him at chess.”

Be prepared – It is important to identify potential risks to your members and prepare accordingly. Where there is a high risk of police brutality or arrest of protesters, you should ensure that protesters are educated about their rights and that you have approached lawyers for assistance. Where many members are new to social activism, training is crucial to ensure their safety. This includes mapping out march routes, carefully allocating roles and having contingency plans in place. If a protest leader is arrested, other members must know the protocols and procedures for continuing the work of the movement. Being prepared also involves notifying officials, if this is a legal requirement and will not impact on the exercise of the right to protest.

Reach out – Many network-building organisations will only assist protest movements if they approach them with a mandate. Similarly, the best way to form connections and relationships with other potential partners is to bring them together for conversations or meetings. As such, it is important to reach out and make contact with people rather than waiting for them to approach you. Reaching out also involves reaching out to the public. This means showing empathy, attempting to involve people in your work in small ways and making the protest space appear inviting and inclusive.

Be inclusive – It is important to recognise the social inequality that may persist even within your movement. Protest spaces should be created that are inclusive and conducive to the sharing of different ideas and experiences. This can be as simple as organising childcare for mothers who wish to be a part of a movement, or involve the creation of more complex, formalised measures to address sexual assault, harassment and discrimination within a movement.

Be clear – It is crucial that your movement has a clearly defined vision, and goals have been set to achieve this vision. This vision should be suitably specific and the goals should create both a short-term and long-term roadmap for achieving the vision. This clarity makes it easier for the public, potential partners and states to engage with your movement.

Go international – Working towards the development of transnational solidarity movements can strengthen your cause and place greater pressure on those who have access to the levers of power. Movements that connect internationally also have the benefits of information-sharing and greater coordination across borders.


Protest leaders

Be clear – It is crucial that your movement has a clearly defined vision and both short-term and long-term and aims that will lead to the achievement of your vision. As a protest leader, it is your job to ensure that the vision and goals are created, they are clear and, importantly, they are representative of the movement as a whole. This can be done through including members in decision-making or relying on consensus based decision-making, in which leaders simply facilitate the process.

Be representative – Becoming a leader of a movement could happen organically, or through a formalised internal election. It is important, regardless of the process, that your leadership is representative of the movement and its wishes. This means that you should be in constant dialogue with members to ensure that no decision is taken against the will of members. This will help legitimise your leadership.

Be responsive – Effective leaders are dynamic leaders who are responsive both to changing social and political circumstances and members’ needs. Quick, reasoned responses are key.

Be prepared – It is your job to identify any risks that may affect members and educate them accordingly. This may involve education about rights when arrested, avoiding the effects of less-lethal weapons such as teargas and what to expect of protest spaces in general if people are inexperienced. It is important that you know what the law requires of protest movements in terms of notification or route marking and that you take steps to comply unless these procedures are excessively repressive.

Creativity is key – Effective campaigns are those that approach social problems in creative ways and put pressure on states in ways that they were not expecting. It is your job to lead the conceptualisation of these creative campaigns, strategise about new ways of approaching the problem and foster dialogue amongst members.

Be aware – Movements are often made up of members from all walks of life, who experience different forms of discrimination and violence daily. It is important that leadership understands these inequalities, listens to differing views and experiences and provides tailored, additional support structures where necessary.

Collaborate – Ensure that you are constantly building relationships with the leaders of other movements and organisations that could be partners in the future. It is also crucial to set a collaboration agenda that clearly sets out what needs your movement has, the kinds of partners you are looking for and the terms under which you will collaborate.


Domestic civil society organisations

Be supportive – Grassroots movements and protest movements are often the driving forces of social change. Because of this it is important to support them. This involves offering whatever assistance your organisation can, even if it is something as small as booking a meeting venue for a movement or performing administrative tasks. This supporting role should not be diminished by any antagonism or mistrust that movements may exhibit towards your organisation. Offering support is a way of winning trust in the long term.

Be dynamic – A relationship with a protest movement may start out as one thing and transform into something different as a changing context demands new types of support. It is important to be dynamic in your organisation’s support and adapt to these changing needs. The kinds of adaptation that may be required include the transition from publicly supporting a movement to doing so without any branding or official affiliation, in cases of backlash against the partnership from counter-movements.

Take direction – Collaboration with protest movements should be done in a respectful and open manner. It is important to listen to movements when they describe their needs and goal. Your organisation should not attempt to dictate strategies or hijack a movement. Your organisation should recognise that it is working together with a movement, rather than one working for one another. Movements are not subservient to formalised civil society simply because they are not professionalised or funded.

Be flexible – Because the circumstances in which protests occur change quickly, it is important that your organisation is flexible with the assistance it provides to protest movements. This is particularly true when that assistance is financial. Often financial assistance requires that the money be used for specific costs, but as circumstances change this may not make immediate sense. Instead, you should be flexible and understanding of changing needs, as long as basic reporting requirements for funding are fulfilled.

Be open – Many protest movements are distrustful of civil society organisations because they are perceived as being too closely aligned to states or as receiving funding from sources seen as compromised. It is important to be open about the ties your organisation may have to states and funders and explain how these could be used to the benefit of protest movements. Moreover, you should be open about your organisation’s funders and partners as this will assist movements in making informed decisions about whether to collaborate with your organisation or not.

Reach out – If your organisation has expertise or resources that it thinks will be beneficial to protest movements, it should offer these. Because of gaps that exist between protest movements and formalised civil society organisations, these movements will often be wary about approaching your organisation first but may be open to receiving support if you initiate the relationship.


International and regional civil society organisations

Be flexible – International and regional civil society organisations often offer financial support to local civil society organisations and protest movements, but money often comes with stringent reporting and accounting requirements, and strict conditions on what it must be used for. Such reporting and accounting requirements often exclude protest movements from accessing support because they may not have the procedures in place for compliance. Moreover, dictating the way that money should be used is unresponsive to changing circumstances and needs. As such, flexibility is needed. If international civil society organisations wish to be truly helpful, they should relax their requirements as much as possible when the need arises.

Be realistic – When approached to partner with or assist a protest movement, international civil society organisations should be realistic about the kind of assistance they can provide and the conditions that may be attached to this. This allows movements to make informed decisions about whether the partnership is worthwhile. It displays an awareness of the political realities that constrains many organisations working globally and regionally.

Be aware – It is important to be aware of the power dynamics at play when protest movements, which often represent the interests of disenfranchised groups, approach large international organisations for assistance. It is easy for the relationship to replicate existing patterns of discrimination and perpetuate inequality. This often manifests in an assumption that an organisation understands the needs of a movement better than the movement itself. As such, internal sensitivity training should be conducted and organisations should work to ensure that they provide the assistance that movements request, rather than the assistance the organisation deems them to need.

Be open – It is important that international organisations are open about any political ties or funding they may have. However, it is also important that organisations make themselves approachable and widely publicise any partnership opportunities they may have or assistance they can provide.


Law enforcement agencies

Be representative – Law enforcement agencies and policing authorities should work to ensure that their membership is representative of the people they are serving. In the protest context trust in the police is important but also rare. It is more likely that protesters will trust police officers and work with them rather than against them if they can recognise people like themselves in the police service.

Training – Law enforcement agencies and policing authorities should ensure that their officers are trained in tactics for crowd facilitation, de-escalation of violence and non-escalation. Officers should receive human rights-based training, sensitivity training and implicit-bias training to ensure that they understand the social dynamics at play in protest movements. No police officer should be deployed to supervise a protest unless they have gone through this training.

Know the law – Alongside practical training, police officers should know the law relating to the right to protest. This involves understanding the human rights justification for protests, and the role that states are meant to play in facilitating protests. Police officers should also be clear on legal issues such as what constitutes violence and what grounds justify arrest. Rights such as the right to privacy should be emphasised, particularly in the context of surveillance of protesters. Again, no officer should be deployed if they have not had this training.

Apply the law – Police officers should apply the legal rules they have learnt. This means that they should not suppress protest out of hand, but instead work to facilitate the peaceful nature of that protest. They should not arrest or react to protesters unless protesters have broken the law. Mere provocation should not result in police action. Any police action, surveillance or arrest must be carried out in a lawful, necessary and proportionate manner and following prescribed procedures, which should emphasise precaution and non-discrimination.

Be accountable and transparent – It is important that police officers are transparent about, and accountable for, their actions during protests. Reports should be compiled detailing the events that took place, force that was used, any arrests that occurred and the procedures that were followed. These reports should be made publicly available as soon as they are published so that the public can review them. Accountability mechanisms, such as internal disciplinary procedures and independent disciplinary procedures, should be established to investigate any allegations of unlawfulness in response to protests. Specialised procedures dealing with issues such as sexual violence perpetrated by the police should also be established. These mechanisms should receive complaints both from within the police service and from the public.



Enact just laws – States should ensure that their laws around the right to protest are aligned with international law and standards. This means that they should ensure they are facilitating the right to protest rather than stifling it. Open civic space is important for the right to protest and states should develop their laws accordingly. States should ensure that punishments for breaking laws are not disproportionate to the purpose for which laws were enacted.

Apply the law – States must ensure that the laws, in addition to being in line with international law and standards, are not just symbolic but are actually applied. This means that states should ensure that all people who interact with protesters know and understand the law and are equipped to abide by it. From the officials in charge of receiving notification forms to marshals, medical staff and police officers, all levels of staff must be trained as to the content and application of the law. There should be severe consequences should any public official fail to apply the law or otherwise act repressively towards protesters.

Open civic space – Civic space should be opened. Open civic space is less likely to result in violent protests and more likely to enable protests to be sites of collaboration and compromise where no person is forced to break the law to make themselves heard.

Be receptive – The best way to ensure that protests do not escalate to violence is to be receptive to the ideas put forward by protesters. This does not necessarily mean bending to their will, but rather being open to communication and compromise. Such receptivity is likely to contribute to the legitimacy of a state and may result in important and beneficial reforms that would not have been possible without input from the public through protest movements.

Be cooperative – Many states struggle to provide their citizens with everything they need to meet their basic needs. As such, it is important that states collaborate with civil society to ensure proper service delivery and cooperative governance. When states only engage with citizens during election cycles, they are likely to face resistance from people who want to make their voices heard. Constant collaboration with formalised civil society organisations and protest movements helps people express their views and avoids conflicts.



Be flexible – Money from funders often comes with stringent reporting and accounting requirements. These often exclude protest movements, which tend not have the procedures in place to access and report on support. Given the rise of grassroots activism through protest movements, and the limited membership of formalised civil society organisations, it is important that funders start looking for ways to partner with protest movements even when they do not have accounting and reporting procedures. This should come with an understanding that funds may be used for a variety of different purposes depending on the needs that arise, but that these will be justified by the gains that a movement achieves.

Have a diverse focus – Often funders cluster around specific issues, meaning that protest movements and formalised civil society organisations working in those fields may have access to many resources, while others working on other issues do not receive assistance. It is important to have a diverse focus and encourage protests movements and civil society in general, as civil society helps defend human rights and advance development and democracy as a whole.

Multifaceted assistance – Funders, by their nature, contribute money to protest movements and civil society organisations. However, they are often in a position to provide more than financial assistance. Funders may provide multifaceted assistance such as providing protest movements with accounting officers, or access to scientific researchers and expertise. Assistance such as this can make a movement more efficient and also make more desirable to other potential funders.

Don’t dictate – Money is often given to protest movements subject to specific conditions. These conditions can make it difficult for movements to adapt to changing circumstances and needs. Conditions often represent a misconception that a funder understands the needs of a movement better than the movement itself. This can lead to an unhealthy relationship in which it becomes less likely that funding will be used efficiently or a movement succeeds.


Featured image by via Pexels