Legislating Your Rights Away
On 20 April 2010 the First and Deputy First Ministers publisheddraft legislation for the ‘Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill(Northern Ireland). The Bill is tortrayed as a tool to find solutions to contentiousparades through dialogue and mediation; however, such portrayals ignore thewider reaches of the proposed bill.
Under the legislation, gatherings of more than 50 people ina public place would require authorization 37 days in advance and must specifywhich groups (like trade unions, community groups, etc) would be involved. Ifauthorization is refused or if organizers fail to apply for authorization, boththe organizers and any participants present are subject to arrest and up to sixmonths in prison. The legislation defines a public space as “any road orfootway or any other place, apart from a building, to which the public or asection of the public has access” – which is pretty much anywhere that isn’tinside.
This means that any spontaneous protests or shows ofsolidarity would be illegal – think, for example, of the rallies held forvictims of racist attacks, or for the two soldiers and policeman killed lastyear. Both of these would be illegal under the new legislation, unless they had37 days prior authorization. This severely limits the ability of activists andconcerned citizens to demonstrate on issues that are of vital and immediateimportance.
Besides being a fundamental part of any free democraticsociety, the right to freedom of assembly and association is also protectedunder the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), and in domestic lawthrough the Human Rights Act of 1998 (HRA).
Article 11 of the ECHR states:
“1. Everyonehas the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of associationwith others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for theprotection of his interests.
2. Norestrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such asare prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in theinterests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorderor crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of therights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition oflawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armedforces, of the police or of the administration of the State.”
Thus, in order for this proposed legislation to be lawful,it would have to be proven that the restrictions being placed on the freedom ofassembly are ‘necessary in a democratic society.’
A mechanism to deal with contentious parades is part of theHillsborough Agreement of 5 February 2010, so the relevant parties andpoliticians involved must deliver on this. What they must NOT do, however, isinfringe upon your rights under the ECHR.
This legislation is outrageous and it's simply not getting enough attention. If passed, it will be one of the most draconian laws in the United Kingdom, and will severely curtail fundamental civil liberties. Parades must be dealt with in a democratic rights-based way – and this is simply not it.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.