Demonstrations in a democratic society: what are your rights?
Author: Julia Bobowska
Date of Publication: 26/07/2022
Europe has seen a great number of protests in recent years relating to climate change, women’s rights, elections, coronavirus measures, racism etc. Protesting has come up, with the help of social media outlets, as a cultural force able to mobilize or oppose governments and the private sector.
However, the protests have brought about a number of unreasonably harsh police interventions. Protesters have rights. They are specified in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. All of us should be aware of what our basic rights are and how we can exercise them.
What is a protest and when is it legal?
The rights I’m going to present here come from our fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly. As the above mentioned Article 11 states, it is linked to freedom of expression. Therefore, it is a pillar of a democratic society. A coordinated group of people acting in a purposeful manner in order to express a political message is how an assembly is defined. The definition is deliberately unrestrictedly defined. Moreover, it covers a lengthy peaceful occupation of public places, even though it is not in accordance with domestic law.
Recent cases of excessive police intervention in peaceful assemblies
Now, let’s talk about recent cases of excessive, or even unlawful police intervention in peaceful assemblies. In January 2021 during the Polish Women’s Strike demonstrations in Warsaw, the police reportedly confined some protesters in one area. In this way they prevented them from moving and only let them leave after an extended period of time. This happened only if they present identification and some protesters were charged for taking part in “illegal gatherings”. Additionally, the police have used tear gas against non-violent demonstrators. According to victim testimonies, they used verbal abuse, while performing unnecessary and humiliating searches like making the demonstrators strip, and handcuffed them.
A notable case was of an elderly Katarzyna Augustynek. This person was denied access to food, drink, warm clothes, and for a time also medication while detained during the protest. The Polish branch of Amnesty International has released a reminder in May 2020 that governments do not have the right to impose restrictions on all demonstrations. They should consider each case separately without Covid-19 concerns. There are also examples of French police forces overstepping their authority during the yellow vest rallies in January 2020. Notably, they used tear gas and water cannons. In addition, in some notorious cases, some officers resorted to hitting non-violent demonstrators with their fists as well as batons.
What are your rights against police violence?
The obligation of the authorities is first and foremost to safeguard the right of the demonstrators to conduct the protest. This happens as long as a protest is peaceful and there are no violent intentions, inciting violence or rejecting the foundations of a democratic society. The Rainbow Collective has counted 150 unjustified detentions that have taken place in Poland until February 2021. The police don’t have the right to ask demonstrators for identification without a valid legal justification. Detention is an extreme case of violating the human rights of peaceful demonstrators. In these cases, the Directive 2012/13 requires that detainees are informed promptly, both orally and in writing about their rights. The European Union’s model of Letters of Rights states that police officers often attempt to dissuade people from using their rights. These fundamental rights include:
A right to see a lawyer
A right to free legal advice
A right to be informed about the accusation
A right to interpretation and translation
A right to remain silent
A right to see all the materials of the case
A right to have one chosen person and consular authorities informed
A right of access to urgent medical assistance
A right to be informed about the maximum time one can spend in police custody
A right to be informed about the procedures in order to be able to challenge or review the arrest or detention and to seek release
We should all be aware of these rights, however, more importantly, we have the right to know them.
Narsee, A. (2021, January 27) Europeans’ Right to Protest Under Threat. Carnegie Europe. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/01/27/europeans-right-to-protest-under-threat-pub-83735
Understanding your rights in police custody. Fair Trials. https://www.fairtrials.org/app/uploads/2022/01/LOF-Summary-Spreads.pdf
Edwards, R.A. Police Powers and Article 5 ECHR: Time for a New Approach to the Interpretation of the Right to Liberty. Liverpool Law Rev 41, 331–356 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10991-020-09255-y
COVID-19 nie usprawiedliwia tłumienia protestów. (2020, May 29). Amenesty International. https://amnesty.org.pl/covid-19-nie-usprawiedliwia-tlumienia-protestow/
French police video of officer hitting protester sparks inquiry. (2020, January 20). The BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51174778