According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Article 15 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly states that children also enjoy this right.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) further establishes that the right to assemble and associate peacefully entitles everyone to join or form associations, including trade unions (art 22). This includes the right to meet for protests, and any other form of reunion for a common purpose.
In 2013, the Human Rights Council reminded States that the universal recognition of freedom of assembly and association entails:
‘their obligation to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely, online as well as offline, including in the context of elections, and including persons espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, human rights defenders, trade unionists and others, including migrants, seeking to exercise or to promote these rights, and to take all necessary measures to ensure that any restrictions on the free exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are in accordance with their obligations under international human rights law.’
States cannot use excessive or indiscriminate force, arbitrary arrest or detention, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to prevent anyone from exercising this right.
According to article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to freedom of assembly and association can only be restricted in cases specified by domestic law and as long as it is necessary and proportionate to protect national security or public safety; prevent disorder or crime; protect health or good morals, or protect the rights and freedoms of others. On any other case, the right to freedom of assembly and association should be fully protected and even promoted. As stated in the joint report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, on the proper management of assemblies,
‘Assemblies are also an instrument through which other social, economic, political, civil and cultural rights can be expressed, meaning they play a critical role in protecting and promoting a broad range of human rights. They can be instrumental in amplifying the voices of people who are marginalized or who present an alternative narrative to established political and economic interests. Assemblies present ways to engage not only with the State, but also with others who wield power in society, including corporations, religious, educational and cultural institutions, and with public opinion in general.’
Moreover, Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, referring to civil and political rights, including the right to freedom of assembly and association states, ‘In compliance with the fundamental obligations laid down in article 2 of this Convention, States Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of the following rights.’
The right to freedom of assembly and association is also recognized in regional standards such as the American Convention on Human Rights “Pact of San José. Costa Rica” (OAS), the African Charter on Human and Peoples´Rights, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Freedom to peaceful assembly and the defence of the environment, land and territory
Freedom to peaceful assembly and association is related to environmental protection, as well as non-violent defence of land and territory. These activities usually take the form of coordinated collective action or peaceful protests. Governments cannot prohibit, repress, or allow third parties to repress peaceful gatherings or protests, nor can they impede the creation of social movements or organisations whose objective is to defend the environment, land, or territory.
The Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment state in Principle 5 that, ‘The obligations of States to respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly encompass the exercise of those rights in relation to environmental matters.’
States have a series of obligations under human rights law related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. These include procedural obligations, such as the duties of States to respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in relation to environmental matters. States must also provide for and facilitate public participation in decision-making related to the environment, among other needs to enable the fulfilment of this right.
Additionally, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment states, regarding ‘other factors that should be taken into account in assessing whether environmental standards otherwise respect, protect and fulfil human rights include the following: (a) The standards should result from a procedure that itself complies with human rights obligations, including those relating to the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, information, participation and remedy;’.