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International rights for activists

Legal protection activists & right to protest
Last update: Apr 18, 2022

The right to protest may be a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. Additionally, protest and restrictions on protest have lasted as long as governments have.

Many international treaties contain clear articulations of the right to protest. Such agreements include the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, especially Articles 9 to 11; and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, especially Articles 18 to 22. Articles 9 enunciates the "right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion." Article 10 enunciates the "right to freedom of expression." Article 11 enunciates the "right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." However, in these and other agreements the rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech are subject to certain limitations. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contains prohibitions on "propaganda of war" and advocacy of "national, racial or religious hatred"; and it allows the restriction of the freedom to assembly if it is necessary "in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." (Articles 20 and 21) Different places have passed their own clarification of these rights.

Protesting, however, is not necessarily violent or a threat to the interests of national security or public safety. Nor is it necessarily civil disobedience, when protesting does not involve violating the laws of the state. Protests, even campaigns of nonviolent resistance, or civil resistance, can often have the character (in addition to using nonviolent methods) of positively supporting a democratic and constitutional order. This can happen, for example, when such resistance arises in response to a military coup d'état; or in the somewhat similar case of a refusal of the state leadership to surrender office following defeat in an election.

Yearly developments


In the 2020 edition of their Democracy Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recorded the worst state of global democracy since the index was first produced in 2006. In 2020, the average global democracy score fell from 5.44 in 2019 to 5.37, marking the lowest score in the index’s history. In total, the democracy scores of 116 countries declined, with only 38 improving and the other 13 stagnating. The global health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic resulted in the largest curtailment of civil liberties ever undertaken by governments during peacetime. While it seems there was no alternative to most temporary restrictions imposed by governments for the sake of public health, the lack of discourse and popular engagement in their respective decision-making processes, as well as the extent to which “authoritarian regimes” used this emergency to further infringe upon the rights of their citizens, has shown the continuing fragility of democracy and the need for greater political participation and more effective and accountable governance. These restrictions, enacted in order to slow the spread of the disease and prevent further loss of life, were the primary contributor to the democratic regression seen in most of the world’s states, from “full democracies” to “authoritarian regimes”. According to the authors of the report, the scores of many governments were downgraded because of the censorship of lockdown skeptics and other dissenting voices, the imposition of states of emergency and restrictions on civil liberties, and the general lack of citizen involvement in the processes that were used to make these decisions.

Yet in the span of a few months, much of the world’s population willingly surrendered their rights and freedoms to their governments for the sake of preventing the catastrophic loss of life that would have otherwise occurred. In various cases, rulers of “authoritative regimes” took advantage of the pandemic in order to suppress dissent, subdue political opponents, and further solidify their grip on power, like in China, where the pandemic led to an expansion of online censorship and surveillance, as well as a tightening of media controls and restraints on civil liberties. Latest example is Myanmar where the authorities have found a “new and overly broad” use for the controversial “Peaceful Assembly Law”: threatening charges against student activists who distributed anti-war flyers in downtown Yangon. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that the cases against the students should be immediately dropped, and raised concerns about the new application of the law. This trend has also infected countries which are not generally considered as “authoritative” in the public view, such as Greece, where a new law was passed to restrict the right to protest.

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