GERMANY: Corona and civil society – the implication for freedom of assembly and association

Article originally published in German on GFF website, 9 April 2020 – accessible here

Public life has been almost completely paralysed by the measures with which the government intends to contain the corona pandemic. This is a critical time for our democracy. At present, civil society actors, organisations and individuals are only able to carry out their tasks to a very limited extent. The freedoms on which our peaceful coexistence is based are severely restricted: freedom of opinion and assembly as well as democratic participation. In order to ensure that democracy and civil society are not irreparably damaged by the corona virus, we must now remain vigilant.

With the monitoring project “Corona Virus and Civic Space in Germany”, which we are conducting on behalf of Greenpeace, we are observing the current restrictions on civil society’s scope for action and evaluating them in terms of constitutional law. We will publish new analyses on this page on a regular basis from April 9, 2020. In doing so, we focus on the areas relevant to civil society:

  1. Demonstration and protest: Restrictions on the freedom of assembly make it very difficult for people to demonstrate and express their opinions in public.
  2. Democratic participation: Accelerated legislative procedures significantly restrict civil society’s opportunities for participation.
  3. Surveillance: New surveillance technologies also pose risks for civil society actors.

Short study: Freedom of assembly, demonstration and protest in times of Corona
This year there will be no Easter marches in the open street – an alarm signal for our democracy. The Easter marches, in which thousands of people demonstrate every year in numerous cities for worldwide peace and disarmament, have been taking place since the 1950s. They are the event during which a broad peace movement becomes visible throughout Germany. Because assemblies are currently forbidden, peace activists and committed citizens cannot express their demands – and thus cannot create political pressure to act. Creative actions of the Seebrücke Movement, which supports the evacuation of war refugees and other refugees from Greek camps, were also banned.

Freedom of assembly is particularly important for democracy in Germany. The dialogue between politics and civil society is fragile and – unlike in many states and at the level of the European Union – hardly institutionalised. Apart from intervention in legislative procedures, protests in the streets are the main means for civil society to make itself heard and to stand up for its own demands. The protesting civil society makes a significant contribution to the critical examination and readjustment of government actions and laws. It also makes marginalised positions publicly visible. The community experience on the street is also important for the formation and strengthening of political movements. As a central democratic element, the political discourse on the street is therefore constitutionally protected by Article 8 of the Basic Law. Democracy needs peaceful protest, particularly in view of the current serious restrictions on fundamental rights. It is precisely these civil society interventions that are currently falling by the wayside in the course of measures to contain the corona virus.

Read the full analysis in German