What is fredom of assembly and association?
The freedom of assembly allows any person to gather in groups to act in a coordinated and purposeful way. Assembly is not just any group of people, each acting individually (like a queue), but collective action: for example, a march, a protest or a demonstration. Freedom of association allows any person to join a group or organisation to pursue a common goal. This may be a trade union, a professional association or other organisation. The freedom of assembly and association does not only ensure the right to be part of an assembly or association, but also ensures that no one can be forced to join in.
What are the limitations to freedom of assembly and association?
This right covers private and public gatherings, static and dynamic ones – the keyword is “peaceful”. Thus, violent gatherings are not protected.
In general, the freedom of assembly and association is not absolute and can, thus, be subject to restrictions. The European Convention on Human Rights provides three criteria, which need to be satisfied for a restriction to be lawful:
1. The restriction is provided by law: there is a provision in national law allowing such restriction
2. The restriction is 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
- for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others
3. The restriction is proportionate (not more than necessary to achieve the aim pursued)
These criteria have also been generally accepted and applied by other international human rights institutions and followed by many national decision-making bodies.
Who protects the freedom of assembly and association?
The State is the main guarantor of human rights. Its obligations are twofold: negative (obligations “not to do” something) and positive (obligations “to do” something).
The negative obligation is to refrain from arbitrary interference with one’s freedom of assembly and association, thus creating an environment where people can gather and form unions freely. The positive obligation is to ensure the protection of this freedom. For that, the State needs to enact relevant laws, have a functioning judicial system, and take security measures to ensure security of assembly, and so on.
International recognition of this right
The first milestone human rights document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 – reads as follows in Article 20 (1-2):
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
This freedom was later incorporated in international and regional human rights conventions. The International Labour Organisation has adopted a separate convention covering various aspects of the freedom of association – the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention.
The Human Rights Committee has also underlined the importance of the right to assembly, stating that:
it is important in its own right, as it protects the ability of people to exercise individual autonomy in solidarity with others. Together with other related rights, it also constitutes the very foundation of a system of participatory governance based on democracy, human rights, the rule of law and pluralism.