A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT
The Article 20 Network is an organization with a unique and singular focus. We are concerned with the defense and advancement of one fundamental human right: The right of people to gather peacefully in a public forum to express a shared point of view—the freedom of assembly.
Formal recognition of this right has its origins in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, but freedom of assembly is a globally accepted principle. It was enshrined in 1948 in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which starts, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly..."
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) offers a useful definition of assembly in their Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly:
“assembly means the intentional and temporary presence of a number of individuals in a public place for a common expressive purpose.”
Freedom of assembly is recognized as a basic human right by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and many other human rights instruments. The universality of this right is also reflected in its guarantee by the constitutions of myriad sovereign nations around the world.
In a participatory democracy, free assembly is one of many ways that people can affect change. In other countries, it is all they have. For some groups, holding assembly is a strategic Plan B when the other mechanisms of influence fail. For the voiceless and disenfranchised, it is all they have.
Scholar and author John Inazu calls the Freedom of Assembly “liberty’s refuge”. Promoting pluralism and guarding the integrity of civil society, the Freedom of Assembly is the great insurance plan of humanity. Be it students rallying for their university to divest from fossil fuels, or ethnic minorities standing up for a self-determination referendum, all have a chance to achieve the impossible because the human right to Freedom of Assembly is inalienable.
ASSEMBLY IN PRACTICE AND IN CRISIS
People are vigorously exercising the right to free assembly this century. Public demonstrations are all around us. You may have been to one recently or know someone who has. If you’ve had the impression that people are taking the streets more often, you aren’t mistaken.
The rate of nonviolent public demonstrations around the world has doubled since 2000. Assemblies are not only happening more frequently, but also growing in size. Between 2006 and 2013, there were 37 protests with 1 million or more people, some of the largest gatherings of humans in history.
Yet the 21st century has also witnessed a steady assault on the practice of assembly and a contraction in how states interpret their obligation to protect this form of expression. The right of individuals to peacefully come together in a public space to promote an idea is endangered everywhere, democracies and dictatorships alike.
Threats to assembly take many forms. Some are administrative barriers: “free speech zones” (a new concept which both confuses and diminishes two distinct human rights—assembly and speech), permits and fees, and overzealous restrictions on the times and places people may gather. Other dangers to practitioners of assembly are more direct: rubber bullets, pepper spray, mass arrests, and even murder.
In an age when people are collectively turning to alternative methods of affecting change, the protection and cultivation of the human right to Freedom of Assembly has never been more vital to humanity.
THE TENETS OF ASSEMBLY
The Article 20 Network holds that the Freedom of Assembly is…
Body as Voice
An assembly is an expression of a shared idea or purpose by joining other human beings in the public place. The presence of the individual in the public space is itself the expression and is a human right.
The Freedom of Assembly must not be confused with or be restricted by laws governing other human rights. The Freedom of Speech protects what a practitioner says. The Freedom of Association protects what the group does behind closed doors or as an operation.
The human right to Freedom of Assembly may have been protected by law for several hundred years but it is founded in the collaboration and cooperation of human civilization. Indeed, collective behaviors are fundamental to our species’ success and, to this day, the social character of our species brings people together to collectively pursue a variety of needs, including advancing their interests.
Prerequisite to Popular Sovereignty
Throughout the story of human civilization, the public forum has played a critical role in the development of ideas. Among those ideas is self-determination and self-governance. Assemblies in public forum are, therefore, the origination of popular sovereignty.
A government that does not protect and facilitate the Freedom of Assembly is not upholding their commitment to Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Everyone holding assembly are presumed by all to have non violent intentions. Mobs, riots, and other violent or destructive assemblies are antithetical to public discourse and the civic conduct of democracy. Therefore, if a practitioner vandalizes, destroys property, or otherwise acts violently, that individual is forswearing their Freedom of Peaceful Assembly.
Prerequisite to Healthy Society
Public demonstrations promote tolerance, pluralism and culture. Society benefits from diverse populations, ideas and expressions. Because the Freedom of Assembly is most often exercised by the otherwise voiceless, it advances new opinions and expressive methods in civil discourse.
Civil and political discourse monopolized by popular or prominent voices is unhealthy.
The Power of the Powerless
In most democracies, voting is not the easiest way for the voiceless to be heard. In dictatorships, the powerless are crowded out of public discussion entirely. The disenfranchised and those dissenting from popular and prominent standards amplify the voices of their causes by holding assembly. Here, negative opinions of practitioners of assembly can lead to opinions of the Freedom of Assembly itself as an inconveniencing public nuisance and, moreover, a threat to peaceful society.
States may not limit the Freedom of Assembly of any individual or organization based on ethnicity, race, faith, sex, gender, stratification, language, or political or social affiliations.
Blind to Content
States may not limit the Freedom of Assembly based on the opinion or content of the assembly. We must defend the Freedom of Assembly not to reinforce popular ideas but to protect unpopular ideas.
An Individual Right
Like all human rights, Freedom of Assembly is a right justifiably inherent to a human being. An assembly is not a group, association or organization exercising a right; it is a group of people each making the personal decision to exercise their human right to join others for a common purpose. 'Guilt by association' does not apply. Dispersing, apprehending or limiting the movements of peaceful practitioners because a select few are acting violently is a human rights violation.
Each practice of assembly is a unique message; thus, assemblies can take many shapes. Marches, rallies, strikes, meetings, sit-ins, walk-outs, vigils and public theater are only a few practices of assembly. Recent innovations like long-term occupations are challenging the very definition of Assembly. Assemblies can be of any size and some have included millions of people.
Of Time and Place
Organizers and practitioners will gather in public at the time and place of their choosing to maximize the effectiveness of their expression. State imposition of unnecessary time and place restrictions or dictation of the time and place of an assembly is a human rights infringement.
The State may not restrict the movements of an assembly. An assembly has the right to gather in its intended location and move to its intended destination. The State may not prevent an assembly from being within sight and sound of its intended audience. The State may not isolate practitioners from each other, thus breaking up an assembly.
While an assembly may be peaceful, it can still be uncomfortable. A passionate crowd may hold an assembly that is annoying and even offensive. Some assemblies will disrupt the normal pattern of life. The discomfort caused by an assembly can create tension between practitioners and non-participants. Organizers, practitioners, non-practicing civilians and the State are responsible for ensuring that discomfort does not lead to direct provocation or violence.
Like all universal human rights, the Freedom of Assembly exists beyond the State. The State is required to provide the conditions necessary for the exercise of peaceful assembly. This includes safety provided by trained police, medical assistance, transportation management and sanitation. The State should communicate with assembly organizers and be transparent about its decision-making.
States cannot require prior authorization of the exercise of peaceful assembly but may require prior notification for the purposes of facilitating the assembly and protecting the practitioners.
Unrestricted Freedom of Assembly should be the norm as per guidance provided in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Rarely do we see necessary and proportional restrictions on the Freedom of Assembly. Restrictions may only be established in cooperation with the organizers of an assembly and must not constrain the essence of the human right. An example of a reasonable restriction would be keeping an assembly and a counter-assembly separated to avoid conflict.
Want to learn more? Get on our mailing list and receive alerts for lectures, roundtables, and other educational opportunities in your area.