Using Mass Protests to Publicize Issues and Galvanize Change

Public gatherings or rallies have long been used as a form of protest against autocratic regimes or to draw attention to a particular issue, cause or inequity. Communication through modern technology has made it easier to mobilize people into participating in mass global protests. The main intent behind a mass protest on a global scale is to draw international attention on a particular issue. The following mass global protests provide examples highlighting this tactic to advance such diverse issues as climate change, inequality, and electoral reform.

Some of the most visible and impactful mass global protests have been related to climate change as global rallies have been held prior to and during each of the major climate talks. The most recent global protest was held before the 2015 Paris World Climate Change Conference known as the COP21 Summit. 45,000 people gathered in Sydney, 50,000 people in London and 20,000 people in Madrid. According to Avaaz, the organizers, more than 570,000 people from 175 countries had taken part in the global protests. The massive public support against climate change provided significant impetus to government heads to make concrete efforts to have an agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 2C and a low carbon future amongst other terms agreed upon at the COP21 Summit.

In September 2011, a protest which started at Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park against income inequality and wealth distribution between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population in the United States rapidly became a national and global movement called the Occupy movement. By early October 2011, mass Occupy protests had taken place or were ongoing in over 951 cities across 82 countries, and in over 600 communities in the United States. Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, São Paulo, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, and Hamburg were among the many cities that joined the protest movement. In Frankfurt, 5,000 people protested at the European Central Bank and in Zurich which is the heart of Switzerland's financial center, protesters carried banners reading "We won't bail you out yet again" and "We are the 99 percent." Even though the Occupy movement has been criticized for its failure to produce concrete results, nevertheless it sparked campaigns that have made significant advancements such as the movement to raise the minimum wage, the anti-fracking movement that pushed cities, counties and states to enact bans on the controversial drilling process, and campaign-finance reform movement to remove big money from the electoral process in the United States. It has also produced a global collection of groups working toward similar goals under the Occupy name, such as Occupy Central.

Occupy Central began in Hong Kong on September 28, 2014. The Wall Street Journal reported that a group called the Hong Kong Overseas Alliance organized mass protests in different parts of the world to support the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. Occupy Central launched a civil disobedience campaign for electoral reforms for the Hong Kong Chief Executive election in 2017 to comply with international standards in relation to universal suffrage as stated in the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45. 200 people demonstrated in front of the Chinese consulate in New York City, 10,000 people gathered in Taipei and 3,000 in London. Smaller protests were held in Vancouver and Los Angeles. Rallies in support of the protests have occurred in over 64 cities worldwide, mostly in front of Hong Kong trade missions or Chinese consulates. Although the election process for the Hong Kong Chief Executive election in 2017 remains unchanged, the global protests were successful in drawing the world’s attention to the existing political climate in Hong Kong.

In Malaysia, a rally which initially started as a protest against election malpractices by the ruling national front and for electoral reforms became a global protest rally encompassing 74 cities in 2015. The first protest rally in 2007 organized by Bersih (meaning “clean” in the Malay language), a coalition of civil society groups and non-governmental organizations in Kuala Lumpur drew an estimated 20,000 Malaysians. The second protest rally, Bersih 2.0 in 2011 drew 50,000 people not including participants in protest rallies in 38 international locations such as Paris, Cairo, London, Stockholm, Seoul, New York City, and Zurich. Following the Bersih 2.0 global demonstrations, the Malaysian government organized a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in the same year to address the electoral issues raised. As the PSC report was deemed unsatisfactory by Bersih, a third protest rally, Bersih 3.0 was held in 11 cities in Malaysia and in 34 countries. As electoral reforms and good governance as demanded by Bersih were still not addressed by the government, a fourth global protest, Bersih 4.0 was held in Malaysia and globally in 2015, drawing more than 500,000 people. Although there has yet to be any electoral reforms and transparency in governance, nevertheless, the Bersih global protests have been credited in changing the political landscape in Malaysia by denying the ruling national front a two third majority for the first time in 2008 and subsequently bringing the world’s attention to Malaysia’s flawed political system and governance.

Mass protests on a global scale succeed as a tactic to draw the international community’s attention to take cognizance of global issues as well as domestic national issues. However, it has to be noted that  such protests to galvanize change must be combined with other tactics which can channel the momentum to shift power, structures and policies.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.