Scene from a 2015 protest in Guatemala (photo: Andrés García/Flickr)
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Assembly & association rights

What are the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association?

The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association are among the most important human rights we possess.

Simply put, these rights protect peoples’ ability to come together and work for the common good. They are a vehicle for the exercise of many other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, allowing people to express their political opinions, engage in artistic pursuits, engage in religious observances, form and join trade unions, elect leaders to represent their interests and hold them accountable.

Today, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are enshrined in international law as fundamental freedoms. But their philosophical origins are not cultural, or specific to a particular place and time. Rather, these rights are born from our common human heritage, rooted in the simple fact that every civilization is built upon cooperation and collaboration, from many and not one. It is human nature – and human necessity – that people come together to collectively pursue their interests. Vibrant assembly and association rights are a prerequisite not only for a legitimate democracy, but also for a just society.

The Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is the right to gather publicly or privately and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests.

This right includes the right to participate in peaceful assemblies, meetings, protests, strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other temporary gatherings for a specific purpose. States not only have an obligation to protect peaceful assemblies, but should also to take measures to facilitate them.

Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly. States may not limit this right for certain groups based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status.

Under international law, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is not absolute. Assemblies may be subject to certain restrictions, but such measures must be prescribed by law and “necessary in a democratic society 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.” Any restrictions must meet a strict test of necessity and proportionality. Freedom must be the rule and not the exception. Restrictions should never impair the essence of the right. International law only protects assemblies which are peaceful, and the peaceful intentions of those assembling should be presumed.

The Right to Freedom of Association

The right to freedom of association is the right to join a formal or informal group to take collective action.

This right includes the right to form and/or join a group. Conversely, it includes the right not to be compelled to join an association. Associations can include civil society organizations, clubs, cooperatives, NGOs, religious associations, political parties, trade unions, foundations or even online associations. There is no requirement that the association be registered in order for freedom of association rights to apply.

Everyone has the right to freedom of association. States may not limit this right for certain groups based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or any other status.

States are obliged to take positive measures to establish and maintain an enabling environment for associations. States must also refrain from unduly obstructing the exercise of the right to freedom of association, and respect the privacy of associations. As with the right to peaceful assembly, States may place certain restrictions on the right to freedom of association. But such measures must be prescribed by law and “necessary in a democratic society 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.”Any restrictions on the right to freedom of association must meet a strict test of necessity and proportionality.

The right to freedom of association also includes the right of groups to access funding and resources, as detailed in the Special Rapporteur’s April 2013 report (see also our general principles on protecting civic space and the right to access resources, which was produced in collaboration with the Community of Democracies).

International law

The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are enshrined in a number of international and regional human rights instruments. Click here to learn more. Also be sure to check out the Special Rapporteur’s factsheets, a series of easy-to-use documents which summarize key points in international law (with hyperlinks to key sources of law and best practices).

Detailed instructions on how to file a complaint with the Special Rapporteur are available at this link. Complaints can be submitted securely online via the United Nations at the following link: https://spsubmission.ohchr.org/  

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