A man holds a placard during a rally, ahead of the referendum for a new constitution, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on October 22, 2016. The placard reads “Yes to a new Côte d’Ivoire.”

© 2016 Reuters

(Abidjan) – The government of Côte d’Ivoire should respect the freedom of expression and association of political parties opposing a draft constitution in advance of a nationwide referendum on October 30, 2016. The draft constitution contains provisions that the opposition contends will significantly strengthen the power of the presidency.

In the period leading up to the referendum campaign, which opened on October 22, security forces dispersed crowds of demonstrators opposed to the constitution at least twice and briefly detained several opposition leaders. Several other opposition rallies occurred without incident. A brief seven-day campaign period, limited resources, a lack of access to state media, and the suspension of two opposition-leaning newspapers just before the campaign period began have severely undermined opposition parties’ ability to explain their position to the public.

“Political parties and all Ivoirians have the right to express their views on the new draft constitution,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure that both those in favor of the new text, as well as those against it, can make their voices heard.”

The “yes” campaign is led by President Alassane Ouattara and the ruling coalition. Opposition parties oppose the new constitution and have called on their supporters to boycott the vote.

The government says that the new text is necessary to turn the page on years of political violence and to modernize the constitution. The new constitution removes the requirement that both a presidential candidate’s father and mother must be Ivorian. Divisive nationality clauses were used to prevent Ouattara from running for election in 1995 and 2000.

Members and supporters of the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party hold a banner as they protest against the proposed new constitution in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on October 8, 2016. The banner reads “No to Ouattara constitution.”

© 2016 Reuters

The new constitution also creates the position of vice-president and a second legislative chamber, the senate, with one third of its members to be appointed by the president. It also removes an age limit for presidential candidates.

While the constitution maintains a two-term limit for presidents, it does not require that the president submit all proposed constitutional amendments to a referendum, instead allowing approval by a two-thirds vote of the national assembly and the new senate. Opposition parties contend that this will make it easier for presidents to force through future constitutional changes.

The National Assembly approved the new constitution on October 11, with 239 of 249 deputies voting “yes.” The proposed text was made public on October 12.

In advance of the campaign period, at least two opposition demonstrations have been dispersed by the security forces, purportedly on public safety grounds. This includes an October 20 rally which the government said was unauthorized, and which was immediately broken up by Ivorian police, who fired tear gas at protestors and detained a handful of opposition leaders for several hours. Several other opposition rallies have been held without incident.

The Ivorian Government spokesman, Bruno Koné, told Human Rights Watch that it is up to the Interior Ministry to evaluate the risk of a particular demonstration and determine whether to authorize it. However, under international law on the right to peaceful assembly, while it is reasonable for a government to require demonstrators to notify the authorities in advance, requiring permission is likely to impose an undue obstacle to freedom of assembly. Restrictions on freedom of assembly are only justified when they are absolutely necessary, such that the restriction is proportionate to the risk.

Opposition parties told Human Rights Watch that their capacity to campaign has been severely curtailed by the short campaign period and lack of access to state media. “How can we be expected to explain the complexities and challenges of a new constitution in just seven days?” said one opposition spokesperson.

Two opposition newspapers were suspended on October 19, 2016, for violating a directive of the National Press Council (Conseil National de la Presse, CNP), although many opposition papers remain in circulation. Joseph Gnanhoua Titi, the editor of one of the newspapers, told Human Rights Watch, “The suspension has prevented me from participating in the debate around the new constitution, and the blue newspapers [those affiliated with the opposition] have lost two of their main outlets.”

In justifying the decision, the CNP stated that both newspapers had violated a July 16, 2015 directive, based on an April 3, 2015 court order, that prohibits referring to a political party by a name legally belonging to another party. Titi said he regularly violated the CNP’s directives, which he considers unreasonable, but that he had not been suspended in 2016 until October 19. Koné, the government spokesman, said that the CNP regularly suspends newspapers and that there was nothing suspicious about the October 19 timing.

Cote d’Ivoire riot policemen disperse opposition supporters with tear gas during a march to protest against the proposed new constitution in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on October 20, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

Opposition parties also say they have had little or no access to government-owned media. A journalist who monitors state radio and television said that they had covered an opposition demonstration against the constitution but that otherwise there had been practically no coverage of opposition to the constitution in state media. Article 11 of the law organizing the referendum requires that, during the referendum campaign, political parties have equal access to state media.

Unlike during the 2015 presidential elections, the government has decided against providing funding to opposition parties for campaigning. Opposition parties said that they lacked the funding to compete with the “yes” campaign, which is backed by the government, on an equal footing. Koné said that the decision to give opposition parties money for campaigning prior to the 2015 presidential election had been “exceptional” and did not necessarily apply to the referendum campaign.

The Cote d’Ivoire government should ensure that demonstrators opposed to the constitution can hold rallies and demonstrations during and after the campaign period, Human Rights Watch said. Opposition groups should also have access to state media, especially in view of the short campaign period.

The government should whenever possible avoid forcibly dispersing opposition protests, even if they are unauthorized, and make it a priority to hold dialogue with the opposition on appropriate ways to maintain law and order. If necessary to disperse protesters, security forces should use proportionate force in accordance with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Opposition parties should continue to notify the authorities of upcoming rallies and should remain open to dialogue with the authorities about alternative routes and security procedures.

“Ivorians should be informed about the strengths and weaknesses of the new constitution,” Dufka said. “Granting opposition parties fair access to the media, ensuring that opposition media operate without undue restrictions, and respecting the right to peaceful protest are essential components of any democratic process.”