Beyond 'Command and Control'

Rethinking the Response Models to Social Protest in Latin America and the Caribbean

May 28, 2024

Social mobilization —in its various forms, including protest— allows people to exercise their autonomy by creating a solidarity bond with others.

Social protest —when carried out through non-violent means— is a key manifestation of human rights recognized and protected by international law, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of association. At the same time, having the possibility to join protests is essential for the realization of the right to take part in the direction of public affairs. 

Social mobilization —in its various forms, including protest— allows people to exercise their autonomy by creating a solidarity bond with others. For this reason, protests play a key role in the inclusive, participatory, and peaceful resolution of differences. Thus, a management of protests based on human rights and the promotion of dialogue is fundamental for the consolidation of democratic societies.

However, in practice, causes are often confused with symptoms, and efforts are adressed at detering protests instead of addressing the tensions that generated them. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres observes in the document “The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights”: 

“Society is stronger and more resilient when women and men can actively participate in political, economic, and social life, […] especially when they have the opportunity to access information, engage in dialogue, express disagreement, and join together to express their opinions […]. However, in too many places, the space for this participation is shrinking”.

Faced to an increase and intensification of various demands from citizens, Latin America and the Caribbean has witnessed highly problematic responses to social protests. In particular, in several places, the misuse of public force has led to an escalation of violence with serious consequences, and in some cases, even the loss of human lives.

The region saw a rise from 18,531 protests in 2019 to 24,371 protests in 2023 (an increase of 31.5%), with a peak of 25,589 protests in 2022, according to ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project). This increase implies that the right to freedom of expression is being exercised more and more, but also highlights the preparedness of States to positively and constructively handle social protests.

Given this context, it is urgent to develop new approaches to manage social protests based on an understanding of them as an expression of people's freedom and dignity and not just as a problem of public order. It is essential for these approaches to be grounded on the protection of human rights and at the same time, to be strongly oriented towards mediation and the peaceful transformation of conflicts.

In other words, it is essential to go beyond a restrictive "command and control" approach towards models of collaborative facilitation and consensus-building.

In the document “Protests, Human Rights, and Conflict Prevention: Proposals to Rethink State Response Models to Social Mobilization” published under the UNDP Public Policy Document Series for Latin America and the Caribbean, we offer a series of possible reforms, structured along the following axes:

  • Promote normative frameworks for the management of social protest based on human rights.

  • Promote modalities of protest management based on the principle of collaborative facilitation and digital innovation.

  • Strengthen the knowledge, capacities, and skills of institutions and their officials for institutional transformation.

  • Double efforts to update the knowledge and capacities of security and justice institutions with a human rights and gender-sensitive approach.

  • Strengthen counterbalance mechanisms for the training and accountability of relevant state actors.

  • Enhance regional and national spaces for thematic agendas.

Through these recommendations, it is expected to contribute to the development of new models for managing institutional responses in the face of social mobilization, based on the recognition of protest as a legitimate mechanism for expressing citizen demands and on the consolidation of horizontal accountability mechanisms.

In the context of its work in the area of governance and peacebuilding, and based on the ideals of human development at the core of its mandate, UNDP renews its commitment to work with all relevant actors in the construction of these models.