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Geneva referendum: “Changes to law on demonstrations threat basic freedoms”

GENEVA (9 March 2012) – United Nations independent expert Maina Kiai underscored that some proposed changes to the law on demonstrations in the canton of Geneva, Switzerland, would “unduly restrict the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, which are core in any democracy.”

A number of proposed changes, introduced by the new law are problematic, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. The proposed changes will be put to a cantonal referendum this weekend, on Sunday 11 March.

The new law provides for a fine of up to 100,000 Swiss francs (approximately US$110,000) for anyone who, inter alia, does not request an authorization to demonstrate; does not respect the content of the authorization; or does not comply with police injunctions. “Such an amount is disproportionate, and would have a chilling effect on the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression,” Mr. Kiai said.

“The exercise of fundamental freedoms should not be subject to a previous authorization by the authorities,” the expert stressed, noting that such a provision excludes the possibility of holding spontaneous assemblies as it requires a previous authorization to hold a peaceful assembly.

The proposed changes to the law on demonstrations in the canton of Geneva also specify that the beneficiary of an authorization to demonstrate may be denied a new authorization for up to five years, even if she or he is not at fault, if the demonstration led to casualties or serious damages. “Such a restriction would further dissuade people to exercise their rights to express their views and opinions by means of peaceful assembly,” Mr. Kiai warned.

The proposed law further allows the authorities to completely ban assemblies in specific locations, such as the city centre.

The law also imposes an obligation on those planning a demonstration to deploy private security personnel if this would limit risks against public order. In the absence of sufficient guarantees to ensure public order, the authorization will not be granted.

“The State has the prime responsibility to protect peaceful assemblies, and cannot circumvent its duty by forcing organizers to provide security personnel,” he said.

Children and youth under 18 years of age are still prohibited from applying for authorization to demonstrate, contrary to international law.

“Switzerland is leading important initiatives with respect to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The proposed changes to the law on demonstrations in the canton of Geneva are not in consonance with these positive efforts,” underscored Mr. Kiai.

Last year, during the 18th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland was the main sponsor of a key panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. “This panel discussion proved to be particularly timely and extremely useful in light of the historical turn of events of 2011,” the expert recalled.

Maina Kiai was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in March 2011 by the Human Rights Council for an initial period of three years. He took up his functions on 1 May 2011. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any Government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/AssemblyAssociation/Pages/SRFreedomAssemblyAssociationIndex.aspx

UN Human Rights, country page – Switzerland: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/CHIndex.aspx

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