Will our right to protest ever be fully returned?

By Marco Peronlini, Amnesty International researcher. Follow Marco on Twitter @esteban80paris

A year ago, monitoring the G7 protests in Biarritz, I was kettled for more than two hours by police under a baking sun. The following day, I was almost choked by tear gas in Bayonne. What I experienced in the southwest of France was part of a heavy-handed police and judicial response to peaceful protest that is being that is being increasingly rolled out across many parts of Europe.

By any standards, 2019 was a remarkable year for protest. Mass movements demanding social, economic and climate justice swept the streets of Paris, London, Brussels and scores of other cities. Some states, like France, responded with rubber bullets and tear gas grenades often used illegitimately against protesters. New legislation to fine, arrest and prosecute people for simply expressing their opinions was introduced. And yet, despite these measures it seemed that protesters were becoming more emboldened to make their voices heard.

“European authorities not only have cracked down on protests in 2019. They have also used the pandemic in 2020 as a smokescreen for pursuing a pattern of silencing dissent.”
Marco Perolini, Amnesty International

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic and with it, many of the rights that we take for granted – such as the right to protest – were necessarily restricted. But if we look carefully at both 2019 and 2020, we see a disturbing common thread. European authorities not only have cracked down on protests in 2019. They have also used the pandemic in 2020 as a smokescreen for pursuing a pattern of silencing dissent.

A report published today by Amnesty International finds that a blanket ban on protests following the COVID-19 -lockdown in France, was disproportionate and resulted in hundreds of unjustified fines. But the restrictions on protests since lockdown measures were lifted in France are merely a continuation of a disturbing pattern that has seen peaceful protesters under assault from the police and the justice system. Thousands of peaceful protesters have been swept up in France’s draconian crackdown on demonstrations, which has seen the authorities weaponize the law to fine, arbitrarily arrest and prosecute protesters violence and have otherwise respected public health measures.

In 2019 alone French courts convicted more than 21,000 people for offences such as contempt of public officials and organization of a protest without complying with notification requirements. These behaviours should never be criminalized.

The crackdown is not unique to France. And neither is the use of the pandemic as a carte blanche to suppress protests.

In the United Kingdom, the Metropolitan police imposed last October a blanket ban against Extinction Rebellion protests, which was later found to be disproportionate by the High Court. Hundreds of peaceful protesters were arrested and prosecuted while the ban was in place.

Extinction Rebellion activists also felt the heavy hand of policing in Brussels in October 2019. The police used force unlawfully and more than 500 protesters were arrested and many more placed in administrative detention.

Last year, peaceful protesters were also kettled, injured and arrested in Austria, Greece, Spain and many more European countries.

COVID-19 is not only disrupting our lives but it is also fundamentally changing the context in which people can legitimately express dissent by participating in collective actions.

Countering the pandemic can rightfully justify restrictions on human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly. In a context of lockdown when businesses are closed and freedom of movement is restricted, to curb the spread of a highly contagious disease, it is reasonable for governments to inhibit gatherings, including protests. But this should not give carte blanche to governments to enact excessive and disproportionate restrictions without necessary assessments and justifications.

Blanket bans on protests are rarely justifiable, in particular when other lockdown measures that allow people to gather have been eased. In France for example, the government kept a ban on protests attended by more than ten people but allowed larger gatherings to go ahead on public transport and places open to the public. It was clear that the government’s intention was to silence protesters, not to protect public health. As a result, dozens of protesters were fined.

High courts in France and Germany struck down similar blanket bans, finding that authorities had acted unlawfully.

This also summer saw heavy handed policing of Black Lives Matter protests around Europe, with protesters in London being charged with horses and kettled.

“The danger is that with COVID-19 here to stay many European countries will continue to use the pandemic as a moment to further chip away rights and stifle dissent.”
Marco Perolini, Amnesty International

In Poland, law enforcement officials have used the pandemic as an excuse to fine protesters even when they were complying with public health restrictions, like wearing facial coverings and keeping physical distance.

European authorities have an arsenal of weapons at their disposal to crack down on protests. European police forces often carry dangerous weapons such as rubber bullets and tear gas grenades, and prosecutors and courts use of vague laws to silence peaceful dissent.

Speaking one’s mind, critically challenging government decisions and protesting peacefully are a vital part of a healthy free society. They offer an outlet to express hopes for the future and demand a better world.

Nobody should be brutalised or bullied into feeling afraid to protest.

In pre-pandemic times, the arrests and prosecutions of peaceful protesters had a chilling effect on many activists. The danger is that with COVID-19 here to stay many European countries will continue to use the pandemic as a moment to further chip away rights and stifle dissent.