The right to protest in the COVID-19 era: The case of Greece
By Evangelia Romanou
The outbreak of the pandemic has certainly turned our daily lives upside down and we have witnessed a great number of our freedoms and fundamental rights being limited or even banned. Among the rights that have had serious and, in some cases, unjustifiable restrictions, is the right to protest, which consists of the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This article aims to examine the proportionality of the measures adopted by the Greek Government for the protection of public health, associated to the right to protest.
During the last year, the people of many European countries have been deprived of the right in question as a precaution for COVID-19. Some states, such as Latvia, have even derogated from Article 21 of ICCPR and Article 11 of ECHR, both of which articles recognizes and protects the right to peaceful assembly, for a temporary period of time.
Greece was no exception in inhibiting the freedom of peaceful assembly. The country has ratified numerous international and national legal texts and treaties that protect the right to protest. Therefore, Greece has committed to respecting their provisions. Any limitation should adhere to specific international standards and they should be lawful, proportionate and necessary.
When it comes to the international level, Greece has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which in Article 21 recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, with restrictions imposed in case public health issues rise. It is noteworthy that The Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Article 10b states that the limitations should be proportionate to the aim, in this case the protection of public health.
In the European region, the right to protest is protected in Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by the member-states of the Council of Europe, including Greece. In the European Union, to which Greece has been a member-state since 1981, fundamental rights, including the right to protest, are guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Articles 11 and 12).
The Greek legal system protects the right to protest on Article 11 of the Greek Constitution, which states that all Greek people have the right to assemble peacefully and without weapons (par.1). Police can be present in public assemblies, and these can be banned by police authority when it is anticipated that they will result in severe danger for public safety (in a specific region) or a severe disruption of socioeconomic life (par. 2).
In Greece’s case, the restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly firstly occurred in March 2020 on the basis of Article 44, par. 1 of the Constitution, which states that in extraordinary circumstances of urgency, the President of the Republic may, upon the proposal of the Cabinet, issue acts of legislative content, followed by the Parliament’s ratification. The provision of this Article was used by the Government in order to issue legislative acts for the protection of public health, such as the restrictions on freedom of movement.
Beginning in the first lockdown, all mass gatherings were banned limiting the exercise of the right to protest. At that time Greece counted around 30 daily cases of COVID-19, which rose to slightly over 100 cases in April and sharply declined in mid-April, leading to the ease of the lockdown from the 4th of May. The alleged goal of these restrictions is to protect the right to health, which is linked to the undisputable right to life and the need to limit the spread of the virus. A recently published study, however, that examined the spread of the virus during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S, suggests that the protests did not result in the increase of the virus’ spread in communities. This raises a question about how the limitation of the right to protest is necessary for protecting public health.
The Greek example raises further questions about the proportionality of the restrictions on the right to protest with the protection of public health. Two cases in particular are of relevance to mention here.
The chief of the police, on the basis of Article 11, par. 2 of the Constitution (“…may be prohibited by a reasoned police authority decision…”) made a decision in November 2020 to ban any public assembly of more than 4 people from 15 to 18 November 2020 for the protection of public health. This restriction was thought to be targeting the annual demonstrations of the 17th November, the anniversary of the student demonstrations of the same day in 1973 that rejected the Greek military junta. This horizontal ban of public gatherings was criticized by Amnesty International, as it was deemed disproportionate to the protection of public health and contrary to Greece’s obligations under international human rights law. The Hellenic League for Human Rights also raised concerns for the proportionality of the ban. The Greek Association of Judges and Prosecutors stated that this decision is beyond the scope of the Greek constitutional framework and called for its immediate revocation. The Council of State, Greece’s supreme administrative court, however, rejected the lift of this “blanket” ban.
Another decision of the police chief to horizontally ban any public gathering of over 4 persons, was adopted for the 6th of December 2020. This ban was also thought to be targeting the annual demonstrations for the murder of a teenager, Alexis Grigoropoulos, who was shot dead by a police special guard in 2008.
Despite these regular restrictions, people in Greece have continued to protest. They demonstrated, among other reasons, against police brutality and against the education bill allowing police into Greek Universities. Moreover, they protested against the law concerning demonstrations themselves, which requires organizers to apply for a license to protest and imposes a “fee” on organizers for potential damages. Many non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, and political figures have voiced their concern regarding this law. In Greece, unlike other European countries, there have not been organized protests exclusively against COVID-19 measures. However, other protests, such as those against police brutality, have been used by the people to express their distress against the ongoing and ineffective lockdown.
Evangelia Romanou graduated in 2020 from the department of International and European Studies of Panteion University in Athens, Greece with a major in International Law. In the academic year 2021-2022 she will be a postgraduate student of the LLM International Human Rights Law at the University of Groningen.