11. Notification and authorization procedures for assemblies
Many jurisdictions provide a procedure to follow for organizers of an assembly. The nature and content of this procedure differs from country to country. An important distinction can be drawn between authorization requirements (see Assembly Section 11.1) (that is, requirements to obtain prior permission from the authorities for an assembly) and prior notification procedures (see Assembly Section 11.6) (that is, procedures to inform the authorities in advance of a planned assembly, without a duty to secure permission).
11.1 Are authorization requirements permissible?
Most international authorities consider that a prior authorization requirement for assemblies is illegitimate.
The Human Rights Committee has not taken an express position on authorization requirements, but has made it clear that any procedures that are put in place must not be used to stifle freedom of peaceful assembly in practice:
The ECtHR, in contrast to most authorities, accepts in principle that authorization requirements for assemblies may be legitimate, though only insofar as their aim is to enable the authorities to meet their duty to facilitate the assembly:
Both the Human Rights Committee and the ECtHR have articulated several important parameters which procedures established by the authorities must respect, and have frequently held that a refusal of authorization, the dispersal of an unauthorized assembly or the imposition of sanctions on organizers or participants were unjustified because the interference served no legitimate aim (see Assembly Section 4.3) or was not necessary and proportionate (see Assembly Section 4.4). This case law is discussed further in the section on consequences of a failure to follow the prescribed procedure (see Assembly Section 11.3).
11.2 Are prior notification procedures permissible?
It is accepted in international law that domestic authorities are permitted (though not obliged) to request advance notification of an assembly. The Human Rights Committee, for example, has held that:
The Committee observes that the restrictions imposed on the author’s freedom of assembly were based on provisions of domestic law and included the burdensome requirements of securing three separate written commitments from three different administrative departments, which might have rendered illusory the author’s right to demonstrate. The State party has failed, however, to present any arguments as to why those requirements were necessary in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.Vasily Poliakov v. Belarus, Human Rights Committee, Views of 17 July 2014, UN Doc. CCPR/C/111/D/2030/2011, para. 8.3.
In Lashmankin and others v Russia, the ECtHR has criticized the requirement under Russian law to give notice well ahead of time and within a short window (no earlier than fifteen days and no later than ten days before the intended public event). It held that the “automatic and inflexible application” of this requirement violates the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.Lashmankin and Others v. Russia, ECtHR, Judgment of 7 February 2017, para. 456. Note that request for referral to the Grand Chamber is currently pending (May 2017). .
11.3 Spontaneous assemblies should not be subject to prior notice procedures
The applicants in Bukta and Others v. Hungary were part of a group of about 150 people that had gathered for a demonstration in front of a hotel in Budapest where the Romanian Prime Minister was hosting a reception. The day before, the Hungarian Prime Minister had announced he would attend the reception. The applicants were of the opinion that Prime Minister should refrain from joining the reception, as it marked the occasion of Romania’s national day, which commemorates a 1918 assembly at which the union of Transylvania with Romania was declared. Transylvania had previously been under Hungarian control.
The police were also present during the demonstration. After a loud noise was heard, the police considered that there was a risk to the security of the reception and forced the demonstrators back to a park next to the hotel where, after a while, they dispersed.
The applicants sought a judicial review of the decision to disperse. The Hungarian courts held that the dispersal had been justified and necessary because the three-day time-limit for informing the police of a planned assembly applicable under Hungarian law had not been observed.
The ECtHR held:
[T[he legal basis for the dispersal of the applicants’ assembly lay exclusively in the lack of prior notice. The courts based their decision to declare the police measures lawful solely on that argument and did not take into account other aspects of the case, in particular, the peaceful nature of the event. …
[I]n the circumstances of the present case, the failure to inform the public sufficiently in advance of the Prime Minister’s intention to attend the reception left the applicants with the option of either foregoing their right to peaceful assembly altogether, or of exercising it in defiance of the administrative requirements.
In the Court’s view, in special circumstances when an immediate response, in the form of a demonstration, to a political event might be justified, a decision to disband the ensuing, peaceful assembly solely because of the absence of the requisite prior notice, without any illegal conduct by the participants, amounts to a disproportionate restriction on freedom of peaceful assembly.
In this connection, the Court notes that there is no evidence to suggest that the applicants represented a danger to public order beyond the level of the minor disturbance which is inevitably caused by an assembly in a public place. …
, the ECtHR held that domestic authorities should not disperse a peaceful assembly held as an immediate response to a political event because of the absence of formal notice:
In the Court’s view, in special circumstances when an immediate response, in the form of a demonstration, to a political event might be justified, a decision to disband the ensuing, peaceful assembly solely because of the absence of the requisite prior notice, without any illegal conduct by the participants, amounts to a disproportionate restriction on freedom of peaceful assembly.Bukta and Others v. Hungary, ECtHR, Judgment of 17 July 2007, para. 36.
It should be noted that even if an assembly is not exempt from the notice procedure, failure to give notice will not by itself justify the dispersal or other interferences by the authorities (see Assembly Section 11.5).
11.4 The authorities should respond to the notification in a timely way
Once advance notification of an assembly is received, the authorities should promptly confirm receipt and provide clear reasons if they wish to impose any restrictions. In the words of the ECtHR:
[T]he authorities have wide discretion to choose the means of communication with the organisers … However … the Court considers that whatever the chosen method of communication, it should ensure that the organisers are informed of the authorities’ decision reasonably far in advance of the planned event, in such a way as to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly which is practical and effective, not theoretical or illusory. Indeed, if the organisers are not informed in timely fashion of the authorities’ approval or the proposal to change the location, time or manner of conduct of the planned event, the organisers may have insufficient time to announce to the participants the approved time and location of the event, and may even have to abandon it.Lashmankin and Others v. Russia, ECtHR, Judgment of 7 February 2017, para. 457.
11.5 How may the authorities respond to a failure to follow the prescribed procedure?
If an assembly is peaceful, the fact that it is unlawful under national legislation – for example because a notice or authorization procedure has not been followed – does not in and of itself justify an interference with the right to assemble. The UN Special Rapporteur has stated:
An unlawful situation, such as the staging of a demonstration without prior authorisation, does not necessarily justify an interference with a person’s right to freedom of assembly. While rules governing public assemblies, such as the system of prior notification, are essential for the smooth conduct of public demonstrations, since they allow the authorities to minimise the disruption to traffic and take other safety measures, their enforcement cannot become an end in itself … The absence of prior authorisation and the ensuing “unlawfulness” of the action do not give carte blanche to the authorities; they are still restricted by the proportionality requirement of Article 11.Kudrevičius and Others v. Lithuania, ECtHR, Grand Chamber Judgment of 15 October 2015, paras. 150-151 (references omitted).
From international case-law, it appears that the following factors determine whether an interference with an assembly that has not been announced in advance violates freedom of assembly or not: (1) whether there is a risk to public order or another legitimate aim that cannot be managed; (2) whether the participants in the assembly are given an effective opportunity to manifest their views; (3) whether the authorities refrain from the use of unnecessary force or the imposition of disproportionate sanctions.
As discussed in Section 11.3, particular tolerance must be shown when an assembly is a spontaneous, immediate reaction to a recent event.
Only a genuine risk to public order or another legitimate aim can justify an interference
An interference with a non-notified assembly will only be justified if there is a genuine risk of harm to a legitimate aim, such as protection of public order.
According to the IACHR, the threat must be serious and imminent, and not future or generic:
The Human Rights Committee takes the same approach. In Praded v. Belarus, for example, the author of the communication had been arrested and fined for participating in a small and peaceful but unauthorized demonstration for gay rights in front of the Iranian Embassy in Minsk. The Committee failed to see what legitimate aim the measures taking against him pursued:
[W]hile imposing the restrictions to the right of freedom of peaceful assembly, the State party should be guided by the objective to facilitate the right, rather than seeking unnecessary or disproportionate limitations to it … [T]he State party has not attempted to explain why such restrictions were necessary and whether they were proportionate for one of the legitimate purposes set out in article 19, paragraph 3, and the second sentence of article 21 of the Covenant. Nor did the State party explain how, in practice, in the present case, the author’s participation in a peaceful demonstration in which only a few persons participated could have violated the rights and freedoms of others or posed a threat to the protection of public safety or public order, or of public health or morals. Praded v. Belarus, Human Rights Committee, Views of 29 November 2014, UN Doc. CCPR/C/112/D/2029/2011, paras. 7.8 – 7.9.
The ECtHR has stated, with regard to the response to a non-notified assembly, that, “what, if any, measures it calls for on the part of the police should primarily depend on the seriousness of the nuisance it [is] causing.”Navalnyy v. Russia, ECtHR, Judgment of 2 February 2017, para. 49. Public order should not be invoked as a reason to disperse an assembly unless the authorities are acting on a genuine concern:
[I]n order to rely on the aim of “prevention of disorder”, it was incumbent on the respondent Government to demonstrate that either the applicants’ omission to notify the public event or their participation in such a non-notified event was, per se, capable of leading or actually led to disorder – for instance, in the form of public disturbance …Novikova and Others v. Russia, ECtHR, Judgment of 26 April 2016, para. 136.
Where possible, police should allow the assembly to proceed and take less intrusive measures, such as managing traffic or redirecting protestors. In Gafgaz Mammadov v. Azerbaijan, where a peaceful demonstration had been dispersed on the grounds that it was not authorized, the ECtHR held that there had been a violation of the right:
It has not been argued or demonstrated that it would have been difficult for the police to contain or redirect protestors, or control the situation otherwise, protect public safety and prevent any possible disorder or crime. Nor has it been shown … that the demonstration posed a high level of disruption of public order. It follows that the authorities have not adduced relevant and sufficient reasons justifying the dispersal of the demonstration.Gafgaz Mammadov v. Azerbaijan, ECtHR, Judgment of 15 October 2015, para. 61.
In Oya Ataman v. Turkey, the applicant had organized a demonstration of 40-50 persons in a central square in Istanbul, in the form of a march followed by a statement to the press, to protest against plans for “F-type” high-security prisons. The police promptly asked the group to disperse, as their failure to provide advance notice meant the gathering was unlawful and was likely to cause public-order problems at a busy time of day. After the demonstrators refused, the police used pepper spray and arrested 39 demonstrators, including the applicant. The ECtHR considered these actions disproportionate:
In the instant case … notification would have enabled the authorities to take the necessary measures in order to minimise the disruption to traffic that the demonstration could have caused during rush hour …
However, there is no evidence to suggest that the group in question represented a danger to public order, apart from possibly disrupting traffic. There were at most fifty people, who wished to draw attention to a topical issue. The Court observes that the rally began at about 12 noon and ended with the group’s arrest within half an hour. It is particularly struck by the authorities’ impatience in seeking to end the demonstration … In the Court’s view, where demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence it is important for the public authorities to show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings if the freedom of assembly guaranteed by Article 11 of the Convention is not to be deprived of all substance.
The demonstration at issue in Éva Molnár v. Hungary arose from elections that were held in Hungary in April 2002. International observers considered the elections to have been fair, but some in the country believed them to have been rigged. In July, a few weeks before the statutorily scheduled destruction of the ballots, several hundred demonstrators blocked a central bridge in Budapest with their cars to demand a recount. After the police dispersed this gathering, another demonstration broke out at Kossuth Square, which the applicant joined. Traffic and public transport, including the circulation of trams and trolleybuses, were seriously disrupted. The police initially attempted to allow the circulation of traffic to continue but eventually had to close some streets nearby. After a few hours, they broke up the demonstration without using any force. The applicant was not prosecuted, but considered that the termination of the protest had violated her right to assemble. The ECtHR disagreed:
[T]he applicant had a sufficiently long time to show solidarity with her co-demonstrators … the ultimate interference with the applicant’s freedom of assembly does not appear to have been unreasonable. [The Court] is satisfied that the police showed the necessary tolerance towards the demonstration, although they had had no prior knowledge of the event, which, in the Court’s view, inevitably disrupted the circulation of the traffic and caused a certain disturbance to public order. In this respect, the instant case is different from others where the dispersal was quite prompt.Éva Molnár v. Hungary, ECtHR, Judgment of 7 October 2008, para. 43 (references omitted).
, the assembly had lasted for several hours before the authorities dispersed it, despite serious traffic disruption. The authorities had not been notified beforehand of the assembly, and tried unsuccessfully to manage the flow of traffic. In this case the ECtHR found that the domestic authorities had given a “sufficiently long time” to the demonstrators to make themselves heard.Éva Molnár v. Hungary, ECtHR, Judgment of 7 October 2008, para. 43.
The authorities should refrain from unnecessary force or sanctions
Interferences with non-notified assemblies should always respect the three-pronged test, including the principles of necessity and proportionality (see Assembly Section 4.4). The ECtHR has stated:
In an amicus curiae brief regarding criminal sanctions imposed on the organizers of a non-notified gathering, the Special Rapporteur underlined that the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly should not be criminalized (see Assembly Section 5.1):
The 2016 ruling in Novikova and Others v. Russia goes some way towards resolving the contradiction, at least for smaller assemblies. A number of the applicants in the case had been given administrative fines for holding demonstrations without prior notice to the public authorities. They claimed to have been conducting solo protests, which are exempt from the notice procedure under Russian law; the Government disputed this, but conceded that no more than six persons had participated in any of the demonstrations. In its ruling, the ECtHR held that “aggravating elements” must be present before a penalty can be imposed for failure to give notice. The Court observed that under Russian law, “a conviction for lack of prior notification did not require proof of potential or actual damage.”Novikova and Others v. Russia, ECtHR, Judgment of 26 April 2016, para. 195. It considered that convicting the applicants merely for breaking the law – when their protests posed no credible risk – was not necessary for any legitimate aim:
[T]he Court cannot see what legitimate aim, in terms of Article 10 of the Convention, the authorities genuinely sought to achieve. It fails to discern sufficient reasons constituting a “pressing social need” for convicting for non-observance of the notification requirement … Indeed, no compelling consideration relating to public safety, prevention of disorder or protection of the rights of others was at stake. The only relevant consideration was the need to punish unlawful conduct. This is not a sufficient consideration in this context … in the absence of any aggravating elements.Novikova and Others v. Russia, ECtHR, Judgment of 26 April 2016, para. 199.
The Human Rights Committee also emphasizes the need for any sanctions to be necessary and proportionate. In Praded v. Belarus, where the author of the communication had been fined for participating in a peaceful but unauthorized demonstration for gay rights in front of the Iranian Embassy in Minsk, the Committee stated:
The Draft Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa state, for example:
31. Any conditions imposed shall be communicated promptly in writing to the organizers of the event, along with an explanation of the rationale for the condition.
31.1. The law shall set out a clear procedure through which, prior to the imposition of such conditions, the authorities shall reach out to assembly organizers with their concerns in such a manner as to facilitate the sharing of information and the production of a mutually positive and agreed approach. Organizers shall not be compelled or coerced during this process.
31.2. Where time allows, a procedure of administrative review shall be available in cases of conflict.
The UN Special Rapporteur underscores the importance that the authorities give clear and adequate reasons in writing for any restriction they impose, in order to enable the organizers of the assembly to appeal:
The ECtHR has held that organizers of assemblies must have access to an appeals procedure that is capable of reaching a decision prior to the date of the planned assembly. This also implies that the law should impose time-limits within which the administrative authorities must act.
The applicants went ahead with their planned march despite the refusal. The municipal authorities’ decisions were subsequently quashed on appeal, but the applicants argued before the ECtHR that they had still suffered a disadvantage as this decision had come only after the event.
The ECtHR found that there had been a violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and in coming to this conclusion it stated:
The Court acknowledges that the assemblies were eventually held on the planned dates. However, the applicants took a risk in holding them given the official ban in force at that time. The assemblies were held without a presumption of legality, such a presumption constituting a vital aspect of effective and unhindered exercise of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. The Court observes that the refusals to give authorisation could have had a chilling effect on the applicants and other participants in the assemblies. It could also have discouraged other persons from participating in the assemblies on the grounds that they did not have official authorisation and that, therefore, no official protection against possible hostile counter‑demonstrators would be ensured by the authorities.Bączkowski and Others v. Poland, ECtHR, Judgment of 3 May 2007, para. 67.
Moreover, there had been a violation of the right to an effective remedy:
Further, the Court accepts that the administrative authorities ultimately acknowledged that the first‑instance decisions given in the applicants’ case had been given in breach of the applicable laws. However, the Court emphasises that they did so after the dates on which the applicants planned to hold the demonstrations. … [B]earing in mind that the timing of the rallies was crucial for their organisers and participants and that the organisers had given timely notice to the competent authorities, the Court considers that, in the circumstances, the notion of an effective remedy implied the possibility to obtain a ruling before the time of the planned events ….
If a public assembly is organised after a given social issue loses its relevance or importance in a current social or political debate, the impact of the meeting may be seriously diminished. Freedom of assembly – if prevented from being exercised at a propitious time – can well be rendered meaningless.
, the applicants had been denied permission to stage a number of anti-discrimination assemblies in Warsaw, and had lodged appeals against these refusals. The appeals were eventually upheld, but only after the date of the assemblies had passed. The Court found that Poland had violated the right to an effective remedy under Article 13 ECHR:
[B]earing in mind that the timing of the rallies was crucial for their organisers and participants and that the organisers had given timely notice to the competent authorities, the Court considers that, in the circumstances, the notion of an effective remedy implied the possibility to obtain a ruling before the time of the planned events. …
Freedom of assembly – if prevented from being exercised at a propitious time – can well be rendered meaningless.
The applicants in Bączkowski and Others v. Poland had sought permission from the Warsaw municipal authorities to organize a march and a series of meetings to alert public opinion to the issue of discrimination against minorities (sexual, national, ethnic and religious) and against women and disabled persons. The authorities refused permission for the march and some of the meetings, citing traffic issues and the risk of clashes with participants in other demonstrations planned at the same time.
Shortly before the planned date of the assemblies, the Mayor of Warsaw said in a newspaper interview that he would ban any demonstration by the applicants as he was opposed to “public propaganda about homosexuality”, which, according to the applicants, revealed the real reasons for the refusal.
In Lashmankin and Others v. Russia, the ECtHR added two important conditions which an appeals process against a restriction placed on an assembly must meet. Firstly, the body hearing the appeal must examine not only whether the restriction imposed is prescribed by law (see Assembly Section 4.2), but also whether it meets requirements of necessity and proportionality (see Assembly Section 4.4). Secondly, the decision should not just be issued, but actually be enforceable before the date of the planned assembly:
[T]he Court considers that the applicants did not have at their disposal an effective remedy which would allow an enforceable judicial decision to be obtained on the authorities’ refusal to approve the location, time or manner of conduct of a public event before its planned date. Moreover, the scope of judicial review was limited to examining the lawfulness of the proposal to change the location, time or manner of conduct of a public event, and did not include any assessment of its “necessity” and “proportionality” …