What is fredom of assembly and association?

The freedom of assembly and association allows every person the right to assemble and form associations with others, particularly in the context of demonstrations, protests, and unions, particularly regarding political and civic matters. This right is the key pathway to collective action in a democratic society, and therefore is particularly fundamental to trade unions, political parties, and human rights activists.

Whilst this right grants people the freedom of assembly and association, it also ensures that no one can be forced to be a part of an association or assembly.

What are the limitations to the freedom of assembly and association?

Just as with other legal rights, there are limitations to this freedom that may be acted upon by the State and its institutions (such as the armed forces or the police) in certain situations.

Restrictions to the freedom of assembly and association may be imposed in order to:

  • protect public safety and/or national security
  • prevent crime
  • protect health or morals
  • protect the rights and freedoms of other people in society (for example, on the basis of preventing or punishing hate speech or hate acts)

Learn more about these limitations as outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Who protects the freedom of assembly and association?

The State protects one’s freedom of assembly and association in accordance with the legal human rights instruments that ensure this as a basic right and freedom in a democratic society.

The State must actively protect this freedom for the people and practice non-interference with this freedom when it is legally exercised by the people.

More specifically, the State has a responsibility to:

  • protect the right of every person to peaceful assembly and association with others. Significantly, this includes the right of a person to organise and join trade unions to protect their interests.
  • commit to the obligation of non-interference in the exercise of this right, except in certain circumstances. The State duty of non-interference is particularly vital for people whose views may be deemed ‘unpopular’ or marginalised groups in society (for example, racial and ethnic minorities in a country).

International recognition of this right

The first milestone human rights document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 – reads as follows in Article 20 (1-2):

Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

This freedom was later incorporated in international and regional human rights conventions. The International Labour Organisation has adopted a separate convention covering various aspects of the freedom of association – the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention

The Human Rights Committee has also underlined the importance of the right to assembly, stating that: 

it is important in its own right, as it protects the ability of people to exercise individual autonomy in solidarity with others. Together with other related rights, it also constitutes the very foundation of a system of participatory governance based on democracy, human rights, the rule of law and pluralism.

In context

  • Hate crimes & Hate speech
  • Freedom of expression & Media

Sources

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education