The right to peaceful protest is, at least in principle, internationally accepted.
Article 21 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
“The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
At the regional level, Article 11 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights governs freedom of assembly and association:
“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
- No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”
The United Kingdom is a signatory or party to both of these conventions. And in general, we have at least partially upheld this right. As the website The Right of Peaceful Assembly says,
“The right of peaceful assembly is generally protected in the United Kingdom although protests may be forcibly dispersed or protesters kettled by the police.”
But now the government is proposing a new law – part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which would give the police sweeping powers to prohibit peaceful protests and provide for sentences of up to 10 years in prison for those defying the prohibition.
It is a good time to step back and ask the question: what kind of country does not have the right of peaceful protest? What kind of country would we become if this law is enacted?
In short, we would be departing from the European norm in which these democratic freedoms are taken for granted – and generally exist in practice – and joining the ranks of countries whose democratic credentials are widely criticised:
- in Europe, almost all countries have at least partial respect for the right to peaceful protest in practice as well as in theory;
- when we look at the largest countries (by population) in the world, none of which are European, we see a very different picture;
- if the law is enacted in the UK, our system will no longer conform with the modern idea of democracy.
Almost All European Countries Respect the Right to Peaceful Protest
The website The Right of Peaceful Assembly makes it easy to compare the legal framework across countries. Here is the picture for a selection of major European countries. For most countries the verdict is that “the right of peaceful assembly is generally respected in [country X]” but there are some for which the respect is only partial:
|France||Partial||On a number of occasions in recent years, French police have used excessive force during assemblies. Under French law a notification regime is applied to peaceful assemblies.|
|Hungary||Partial||The right of peaceful assembly is generally respected in Hungary although recent changes to the Constitution make it easier for the authorities to prohibit protests.|
|Netherlands||Partial||The right of peaceful assembly is widely but not fully respected in The Netherlands. Under domestic law, local authorities have the power to deny assemblies that have not been the subject of prior notification or which may disturb the traffic.|
|Turkey||No||The right of peaceful assembly is not generally respected in Turkey.|
|UK||Partial, for now||The right of peaceful assembly is generally protected in the United Kingdom although protests may be forcibly dispersed or protesters kettled by the police.|
Source: The Right of Peaceful Assembly
Nevertheless, with the exception of Turkey, there is a clear understanding that being a modern democracy includes respecting the right of peaceful protest.
Most of the World’s Largest Countries Do Not
If we look at the 10 largest countries in the world, we see a very different picture. Respect for the right of peaceful protest is the exception rather than the rule.
|China||No||China should act to respect and protect the right of peaceful assembly to all, including in Hong Kong, and to restrict police use of force and firearms in accordance with international law.|
|India||No||India has been increasingly restricting enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. Excessive force is used to disperse protests in Jammu and Kashmir.|
|US||Partial||The right of peaceful assembly is generally respected in the United States although protests may be forcibly dispersed by the police. Local jurisdictions may require authorisation for certain public assemblies.|
|Indonesia||No||The right of peaceful assembly has been widely respected in Indonesia but protests tend to be forcibly dispersed by the police, increasingly with the use of excessive force.|
|Pakistan||No||The right of peaceful assembly in Pakistan is restricted. Police may forcibly disperse protests.|
|Brazil||Partial||The right of peaceful assembly is generally respected in Brazil, but the police or other law enforcement officials sometimes employ excessive force against demonstrators.|
|Nigeria||No||The right of peaceful assembly is not fully respected in Nigeria, particularly in the case of protests against the government. Nigeria should restrict use of firearms during assemblies in accordance with international law.|
|Bangladesh||No||Bangladesh should refrain from excessive restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and amend its national legislation to prohibit the use of firearms to disperse an unauthorised assembly.|
|Russia||No||The right of peaceful assembly is not respected in Russia. Protests are liable to forcible dispersal by the police and participants to arrest and prosecution.|
|Mexico||Partial||The right of peaceful assembly in Mexico is generally respected although its exercise in certain areas is restricted or dangerous.|
Source: The Right of Peaceful Assembly
In reality, most of these countries have repressive regimes rather than model democracies.
The Law Would End the UK’s Status as a True Democracy
The proposed new law – as currently set out in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – would mean the end of a right to peaceful protests in the UK. Some protests might still be allowed – but citizens would no longer have an automatic right to protest: only the right sort of protests would be permitted:
In essence the Bill adds to the reasons under which a protest can be banned a new ground: noise. If the Police believe that any individual or organisation nearby might be disturbed or feel threatened or annoyed by the noise of the protest, they can ban it.
Presumably, the anti-Brexit marches in which over 1 million people took peacefully to the streets (but which were admittedly noisy), might have disrupted or annoyed those in Parliament, and could be banned under the new legislation.
Particularly disturbing proposals in the bill include:
- It widens the definition of protest to include even one-person protests;
- It removes the burden of proof on the state to show that demonstrators were knowingly non-compliant with restrictions that have been announced;
- It makes is possible to ban demonstrations because a person “is put at risk of suffering” any disruption – including noise or “serious annoyance” – which means that no offence need even have occurred to ban the demonstration;
- And it makes the maximum penalty for non-compliance 10 years in prison.
If the law passes, the UK will not be a modern democratic state, it will be a repressive regime more like China, India, Indonesia or Pakistan than Austria, Czechia, Denmark or Germany.
Fortunately, there is still time to amend the Bill, and the strength of public feeling is becoming clear.
At the time of writing (19/3/21), the petition to parliament has over 160,000 signatories, and the number is rising fast. If you are concerned about the provisions of this Bill, please do sign the petition and write to your MP and asking them to do everything in their power (e.g. by voting for reasoned amendments to the bill) to support the rule of law and the freedom to demonstrate – this site makes it easy to do that.
These actions do make a difference: as The Scotsman reports, there are already signs that the government will delay the Bill because of the strength of public reaction. This does not mean that the threat is over – we must keep up the pressure – but it does show that the government will U-turn, as it did over school meals, when public pressure is great enough.
And please sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.