The right to protest is a fundamental right in European democracies. Yet in recent times, states have infringed upon this right, whether through legal restrictions such as the declaration of a state of emergency, or through more tangible responses such as policing forces on the ground. This is a worrying trend, which throws into question European governments’ commitment to protecting this right.
In the UK, the right to protest is encapsulated in Article 11 of The Human Rights Act, and at an EU level, it is incorporated in Article 12 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Both protect the freedom of assembly and association. Yet recent heavy handedness from police and governments across Europe shows a propensity towards undermining these basic freedoms. As an example, after eight days of protests by Extinction Rebellion in November 2019, the Met Police prohibited the assembly of two or more people across London under section 14 of the Public Order Act. This ban was ultimately ruled unlawful, but the fact that it was initially approved highlights both the increasing tensions between the public and the police, and the increasing tendency towards greater restrictions on protesting.
Another way in which states are able to justify limiting protests is by declaring a state of emergency. This is often couched in supposed concern for security, and related to anti-terrorism measures, but ultimately undermines rights and creates a culture of suspicion. By declaring a state of emergency, arrests and curfews, amongst other things, require less justification. This course of action was considered during the gilets jaunes protests in France, which were violent and unprecedented in length.
Beyond legal and political responses, policing tactics on the ground have taken a turn towards greater repression. In a survey by Open Society, police in many countries were found to be directly responsible for violence against protestors rather than keeping the peace and safeguarding people’s right to assemble. For example, in Moldova, special police have attended rallies and protests in plain clothes and attempted to bait attendees into quarrels and create disturbance in order to justify clampdowns. In July 2019, Russian police arrested almost 1400 people at protests in support of free elections. The disproportionate use of force, particularly against peaceful protests, is worrying.
Unfortunately, this trend seems likely to increase rather than to diminish. With the rise of new technologies such as superior facial recognition, repressive police responses could be on the rise. The Met police have recently adopted Live Facial Recognition systems amid widespread criticism from civil liberties groups. The accuracy of this technology is still in doubt, and facial recognition systems have been shown to have considerable racial bias. This means police are likely to target the wrong individuals amongst protesters, based on the misguided belief that there is video evidence against them. This technology blurs the boundary between privacy and security, which ultimately makes protesting more dangerous for the individual.
Could it be that the long history of protesting in Europe is under threat? It appears so. The police may have a duty to maintain order, but the current tendency towards protest movements being undermined by authoritarian and heavy-handed police responses is concerning. Not only is this worrying for collective movements who rely on protest to voice their causes, but it is also a concern for the individual, as civil rights and liberties are infringed by force, technology, and the state.
Emily Ford and Chloe Foster
Emily Ford and Chloe Foster are the Editor and Researcher for the European Affairs policy centre.
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