International monitors to keep eyes on NATO protests

May 17, 2012

The same international watchdog group that's monitored contentious elections in Armenia and spoken out against the jailing of Russian journalists is now training its eye closer to home: this weekend's NATO summit.

Representatives from the Warsaw, Poland-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights will deploy a handful of monitors to the streets of Chicago to document interactions between protesters and police.

Monitors will be on watch for any violence or provocations between demonstrators and law enforcement, said Omer Fisher, an advisor for the group. But they'll also be noting smaller details - the type of gear used by law enforcement or the protest chants of demonstrators, for example - to gauge whether the atmosphere in the streets is one that lends itself to free expression and public assembly, and how it affects the lives of nearby Chicagoans.

The presence of international monitors at the NATO summit marks another way that Chicago will be in the international spotlight beginning this weekend, when untold thousands of protesters are expected to descend upon the Loop. Fisher, along with a colleague and six volunteers, will also be in the streets, but as independent observers.

One goal is to document how local and federal law enforcement deal with the challenging task of keeping the peace at one of the highest-profile events in Chicago history.

"On the one hand, of course there are legitimate security concerns around these type of international meetings, but then on the other hand, we also would like to see a response by the authorities that allows people to voice their concerns if they so wish," Fisher said.

The group will also be watching protests and rallies near the G-8 summit at Camp David in Maryland, which had been originally scheduled to take place in Chicago before a last-minute venue change by the White House.

The group's trip to Chicago caps a year of monitoring different types of public protests around the globe, from gay rights marches in Italy, the United Kingdom and the Balkans, to demonstrations at international economic summits in Switzerland, Fisher said. In the fall, it will gather its findings into a report with recommendations about how different countries should balance security and public dissent.

The months leading up to this weekend's world meeting have been marked by several flare-ups between anti-NATO protest organizers and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Activists railed against a series of Emanuel-backed ordinances that impose new restrictions on public demonstrations, and they threatened legal action when the city decided to change an already-approved protest march route, citing security concerns.

Fisher would not comment on the city's actions leading up to the summit. But he did note how important it is for protesters to be able to get close to the world leaders whose policies they're protesting - something anti-NATO organizers have been concerned about for months.

"As assemblies are intended to convey a message, [protesters] should be allowed to be within sight and sound of the intended audience," Fischer said.

Andy Thayer, who is organizing an anti-NATO march to McCormick Place set for Sunday, welcomed the extra scrutiny coming from international monitors.

"There is some value, I think, to the embarrassment effect that organizations like them perform by saying 'No, we're gonna say the emperor has no clothes,'" Thayer said.