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  • 4. Associations may freely determine membership

    The right to freedom of association applies also to associations themselves, implying that those within the association have the right to choose with whom to associate. The African Commission corroborates this principle[1] in its Draft Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, explaining that

    [those] founding and belonging to an association may choose whom to admit as members, subject to the prohibition on discrimination.[2]

    Similarly, the ECtHR has held that the right to freedom of association entails the right for a private association to choose its own members:

    Article 11 cannot be interpreted as imposing an obligation on associations or organisations to admit whosoever wishes to join. Where associations are formed by people, who, espousing particular values or ideals, intend to pursue common goals, it would run counter to the very effectiveness of the freedom at stake if they had no control over their membership.[3]

    At times a balance needs to be struck between the rights of the collective and the rights of the individual. In Arenz et al v Germany, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in favor of the freedom of a political party not to associate with Scientologists over the rights of the latter’s desire to associate with them. The applicants in the case were Scientologists who were expelled from one of Germany’s major political parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on the basis of their religion. The expulsions arose after the CDU adopted a resolution, which determined that Scientology was incompatible with CDU membership. The authors challenged their expulsions in court without success. The German courts had found that the CDU’s decision was not arbitrary, and that they would not interfere with the political party’s autonomy over its membership. The Human Rights Committee ultimately took the position that it could not interfere with the German courts’ findings regarding the balance of interests between the authors and the members of the party.[4]

    The OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission Joint Guidelines on Freedom of Association stipulate that associations shall be free to determine their rules for membership, subject only to the principle of non-discrimination.[5]


    1. For the principle, see: UN Human Rights Council, First Thematic Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, UN Doc. A/HRC/20/27, 21 May 2012, at para. 55.
    2. AComHPR, Draft Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, 22 September 2016, art. I.2.2.
    3. Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen (ASLEF) v. the United Kingdom, ECtHR, Judgment of 27 February 2007, para. 39.
    4. Arenz, Paul; Röder, Thomas and Dagmar v. Germany, Human Rights Committee, UN Doc. CCPR/C/80/D/1138/2002, 24 March 2004.
    5. OSCE/ODIHR and Venice Commission, Joint Guidelines on Freedom of Association, 2015, para. 28 (principle 3).
    6. Mr. Jeong-Eun Lee v. Republic of Korea, Human Rights Committee, UN Doc. CCPR/C/84/D/1119/2002, Views of 20 July 2005, para. 7.2
    7. Mr. Jeong-Eun Lee v. Republic of Korea, Human Rights Committee, UN Doc. CCPR/C/84/D/1119/2002, Views of 20 July 2005, para. 7.2.
    8. AComHPR , Report of the Study Group on Freedom of Association & Assembly in Africa, 2014, III.C.1. (36).
    9. International Pen and Others v. Nigeria, ACtHPR, 1998, para 108; see also Malawi Africa Association and others v. Mauritania, AComHPR, Communication of 27 April – 11 May 2000, para. 107: “some presumed supporters of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party were imprisoned for belonging to a criminal association. … The government did not provide any argument to establish the criminal nature or character of these groups.”
    10. AComHPR, Draft Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, 22 September 2016, para 51.1.