International human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights, protect the right of all to hold peaceful assemblies. In the same way, Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights also guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”. To learn more about international and regional human rights standards, please consider taking this introductory course.
The European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France, monitors state compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights by examining complaints lodged by individuals or, sometimes, by states. Where it rules that a state has breached one or more of these rights, it delivers a judgment finding a violation. The 47 states which have ratified the Convention fall within the Court’s jurisdiction. The Court’s judgments are binding, which means that the state concerned is obliged to comply with them. For more information about the ECtHR, please see their Q&A.
An assembly is an intentional and temporary presence of one or more people in a public place for a common expressive purpose. Types of peaceful assembly could vary from one-person demonstrations to processions and sit-ins. States have obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to peaceful assembly without discrimination. States also have a positive obligation to facilitate the right to peaceful assembly. This does not apply to violent assemblies, but a peaceful assembly does not lose its peaceful character due to sporadic violence or the unlawful behaviour of some individuals.
Those who are planning to organise a peaceful assembly must be able to exercise this right without seeking permission from government authorities. But while states are not entitled to require people to seek authorisation, they may require prior notification of planned assemblies. Notification can help the authorities to facilitate the right of peaceful assembly, for example, by taking measures to re-route traffic, and to protect public safety or the rights of others. Requirements to submit prior notification of an assembly should include exceptions for spontaneous assemblies. If individuals fail to comply with notice requirements, that should not lead to punishment through fines or imprisonment.
Many assemblies inevitably involve a certain level of disruption to ordinary life or the rights of others, including disruption of traffic and pedestrian pathways. Authorities must ensure that permissible restrictions to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly are clearly set out in law and are in any particular instance are no more than what is demonstrably necessary (that is, no lesser measure will suffice) and proportionate for the protection of a legitimate concern (national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others). While authorities may on this basis impose certain restrictions, for example on the timing or location of assemblies, as a rule, assemblies should be facilitated within “sight and sound” of their target audience. Neither a hypothetical risk of public disorder nor the presence of a hostile group of counter-demonstrators audience are legitimate grounds for prohibiting a peaceful assembly.
The fact that an assembly is illegal in terms of national law, for example if it is held in breach of restrictions which are imposed by authorities, or that minor violations of the law occur during a peaceful assembly, should not necessarily lead to a decision to disperse an assembly. If a small minority engages in acts of violence or appears to be attempting to turn a peaceful assembly into a violent one, police should ensure that those who are protesting peacefully are able to continue to do so; they should not use the violent acts of a few as a pretext to restrict or impede the exercise of rights by the majority. States also have a positive duty to take steps to enable peaceful assemblies to take place without participants fearing violence. Decisions to disperse a peaceful assembly should be made only as last resort and in line with the principles of necessity and proportionality: they can only be made in pursuit of a legitimate aim that outweighs the right of people to assemble, and only if there are no other less restrictive ways to do so.
Activists may wish to familiarize themselves with Amnesty personal security recommendations during protests and demonstrations.
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