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An unreasonable ban on a peaceful demonstration leads to reforms to protect free assembly

Helsinki Committee of Armenia v. Armenia  | 2015

An unreasonable ban on a peaceful demonstration leads to reforms to protect free assembly

The right of peaceful assembly enshrined in Article 11 is a fundamental right in a democratic society and, like the right to freedom of expression, one of the foundations of such a society

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, 31st March 2015

Background

L.G. was a witness in a murder investigation. His death in police custody provoked an outcry among Armenian civil society.

The Helsinki Committee of Armenia is a human rights NGO. One year after L.G.’s death, it informed the authorities that it intended to hold a commemorative march in Yerevan. The mayor banned the march, citing national security reasons. The NGO was not told about the ban and was prevented from holding the march by police.

The NGO argued that the ban had violated its right to hold public demonstrations.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The Mayor of Yerevan had banned the march on grounds of national security, referring to the fact that rallies after recent elections had led to clashes with the authorities.

However, the court noted that the Helsinki Committee’s march had been planned more than two months after the post-election clashes. There was also no evidence that the organisers and participants had been connected with the previous clashed, or that they intended to create disorder of any kind.

The court said that the right to peaceful assembly is fundamental to a democratic society. It doubted that reasons given by the authorities to interfere with that right had been either necessary or sufficient. The decision to ban the march had therefore violated the Helsinki Committee’s right to free assembly. The NGO had also been denied an effective way to challenge the ban in Armenia.

Follow-up

After the case was notified to the Armenian government in January 2010, significant reforms were made to protect the right to hold public demonstrations in accordance with the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  • In 2011 a Law on Assemblies was passed, introducing various safeguards for the right to free assembly, including the principle that preventing or dispersing a gathering should be a measure of last resort to be used in cases of violence.
  • The law states that, even if an assembly is conducted without the authorities being properly notified, if it is peaceful it shall be facilitated by police.
  • The 2011 law also specified that a regulatory body should be responsible for assemblies. That body must answer requests for assemblies within 48 hours, and its decisions should be subject to legal oversight in the courts.
  • Between 2011 and 2017, 1,369 notifications were submitted to the Mayor’s office. The assembly was banned in only nine cases, and only one decision was contested before the administrative court.
  • In 2015 changes were made to the constitution to further protect freedom of assembly. These included the right to conduct spontaneous assemblies without prior notification.