Though many member states have established the right to peaceful protest through law or constitution, there is, at present, not an internationally recognized right to peaceful protest. Several agreements and charters establish related rights – the right to peaceful assembly and association through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example. Even still, a distinction exists between “assembly”, or a gathering, and “protest”, a petition of political grievances. Many of these international conventions clearly establish the relative priority of national security and rule of law over the individual right to protest. This distinction between assembly and protest, in many cases, results in forceful and occasionally violent crackdowns by governments upon what they consider to be illegal or harmful gatherings.
In recent decades, a number of political protests have risen to international attention, often in response to violent government action. In 2013, in reaction to a delay by the Ukrainian government in signing an agreement with the European Union, public protests were held in a number of Ukrainian cities. Following nine days of protests, violent dispersal of crowds by police forces led to an escalation, with protestors toppling statues and exchanging gunfire with police after the passage of several anti-protest laws by the Ukrainian parliament. These protests, dubbed the Euromaidan protests, led directly to the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution that overthrew the government of President Yanukovych. International response varied – NATO and then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations urged the government to acknowledge the right to peaceful assembly, while President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation described it as a violent riot.
During the 2020 protests in the United States surrounding the death of George Floyd and, more generally, police brutality in the US. Though many protests were peaceful – later estimates suggested 93% were nonviolent or involved no property damage – several involved widespread looting and vandalism or escalated into violence between police and protestors. Elements of the US Army and National Guard were deployed in several cities, and more than 14,000 protestors were arrested. International response was mixed – several US allies expressed solidarity with the government or denounced the protests as violent riots, while others denounced the response as heavy-handed or hypocritical, especially in light of the US response to the earlier protests in Hong Kong and subsequent police crackdown.
How does peaceful assembly differ from political protest? How could, or how should, a right to peaceful protest be balanced against member states’ national security and rule-of-law interests?
European Convention on Human Rights:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: