Article written by the European Civic Forum on 20/10/2023.
Following the new dramatic escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine, many people in Europe want to express their concerns, their opinions, their demands, anger and grief collectively in demonstrations. They are calling on their governments and international institutions to take responsibility and action to ensure the protection of civilians, the respect of human rights and dignity. They are urging the international community to act for peace and justice.
Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and to free speech as outlined in international law. In addition, states have an obligation to respect and ensure peaceful protest without discrimination. The right to peaceful assembly and protest are crucial means for political participation. According to the OHCHR General Comment on the right of peaceful assembly, “states must leave it to the participants to determine freely the purpose or any expressive content of an assembly. The approach of the authorities to peaceful assemblies and any restrictions imposed must thus in principle be content neutral, and must not be based on the identity of the participants or their relationship with the authorities.”
It is even more crucial in times of conflict that society benefits from a fully functioning civic space, fundamental rights and democracy, as many people will have more to express, for issues that are often more urgent. However, over the last two weeks there have been many breaches of these international standards as people protested across Europe to express solidarity with Palestinian people.
In France, the Minister of Interior banned all pro-Palestine protests nationwide and called on the organisers and “troublemakers” to be arrested. Amnesty International France stressed that “the ban on all demonstrations in support of the Palestinians in France constitutes a serious and disproportionate attack on the right to demonstrate. […] It is important that civil society actors can mobilize peacefully and publicly, in particular those calling on those engaged in the conflict to respect the rights of civilian populations. This is why there cannot be a systematic ban on the right to peacefully demonstrate support for the rights of the Palestinian populations.” As the ban was implemented, even when people assembled peacefully, the police used tear gas and batons to disperse pro-Palestine protests in Lyon and Paris.
Following an appeal against the ban, launched by the association Comité Action Palestine, the Council of State found that it is up to prefects (the state’s regional representatives) “to assess the reality and scale of the risks to public order likely to result from each declared or planned demonstration” on a case by case basis and under the supervision of the administrative court and that “prefects cannot decide on a ban solely based on the telegram transmitted by the Minister or solely on the grounds that the event in question aims to support the Palestinian population“. While the ruling is positive, there is still a need to monitor any undue interference with the right to protest in the future.
Similar bans have taken place in a few cities in Germany, such as Berlin and Frankfurt. In Berlin, this resulted in peaceful demonstrations, including vigils, being dispersed, with some detained by the police. For example, Iris Hefets, on the board of the association “Jewish Voice for Just Peace” (קול יהודי לשלום,) protested alone displaying a sign: “As a Jew & Israeli Stop the Genocide in Gaza”, and was temporarily arrested and released from police custody after about an hour.
Similarly, in Hungary, the government banned two rallies intended to commemorate civilian victims in Gaza. According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union the “bans were not based on evidence but on assumptions” (unofficial translation).
While fears of incitements to hate, antisemitism and islamophobia are fully legitimate, according to human rights standards the authorities have a duty to facilitate and guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. In line with these standards, in case of violent demonstrators, the police’s action should be aimed at removing those enacting or inciting violence in order to enable the peaceful protesters to continue exercising their right.
The Palestinian flag has also become a target. In the United Kingdom, the government warned that waving a Palestinian flag or pro-Palestinian chant may be a criminal offence if it incites violence or harassment. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, urged senior police officers to clamp down on any attempts to use flags or songs that could intimidate members of the Jewish community stating that “it is not just explicit pro-Hamas symbols and chants that are cause for concern” and that pro-Palestine chants could be a public order offence. In Germany, police have also targeted protesters waving the Palestinian flag. Waving a flag – any flag – is a form of expression and freedom of political expression that should enjoy maximum legal protection. Censoring the Palestinian flag risks denying the identity of the Palestinian people and contributing to tensions and violence.
The Civic Space Watch will continue monitoring undue protest restrictions across Europe and documenting them. If you would like to report any restrictions, please contact us on our page.