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Article 20: Freedom of association and assembly

  • By organising mass demonstrations at key international meetings, anti-globalisation activists are taking advantage of the universal right to freedom of association and assembly in an innovative way.
  • While the majority of protestors are non-violent, there is a small camp of radical protestors who actively incite violence at demonstrations by hurling missiles or destroying property.
  • During anti-globalisation demonstrations, police in several US and European cities have reacted to the violence of these few protesters by allegedly using excessive force in non-violent situations.


Peaceful demonstrations are one of the key means by which citizens can protest the actions of their leaders, making them more responsive to their wishes.

Until recently, demonstrations were overwhelmingly local or national in scope. However, the nature of demonstrations has changed since the emergence of globalisation.

Nowadays, protest itself is increasingly transnational in character. People are assembling all across the globe to protest the actions of international institutions rather than individual governments.

Ironically, it is the anti-globalisation movement that has best applied the universal right to freedom of assembly to a global scale.

One of the most international and broad social movements of recent times, the anti-globalisation movement is made up of a variety of causes, including environmentalism, debt forgiveness, animal rights, the protection of children, anarchism and anti-capitalism.

Most of the movement's adherents believe that globalisation leads to exploitation of the world's poor, workers and the environment.

Mass Demonstrations

The movement's key mode of organising is mass demonstrations. It first came to the attention of the international media in 1999 when 100,000 demonstrators marched on the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) third ministerial meeting in Seattle, Washington.

Although the majority of protesters were peaceful, a minority overturned newspaper stands and smashed shop windows.

Police fired pepper gas, tear gas and plastic bullets into the crowd and arrested 500 people. A state of civil emergency was declared. Damage to buildings and business losses were valued at 12.5m.

In 2000 and 2001, large-scale demonstrations modelled after the so-called ‘Battle of Seattle' were organised by anti-globalisation protestors.

Other protests have occurred at the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, DC. and Prague; the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; the Summit of Americas in Quebec City; May Day events in London and Berlin; and the European Union summit in Gothenburg, Sweden. The most recent protests occurred at the World Trade Summit in Cancun, Mexico; there were wild celebrations amongst those opposed to globalisation when the talks collapsed.

Excessive Force

The police's reaction to the demonstrations has often been heavily criticised by civil liberties and human rights organisations. They have been charged with denying some protestors their right to freedom of assembly and using excessive force on non-violent protestors.

The most violent demonstration occurred in July of 2001 at the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy when one Italian demonstrator was shot dead by the police, and several hundreds were beaten.

Amnesty International (AI) claims that at least 200 protesters were tortured in Genoa.

According to AI, police raided a school being used to train anti-globalisation campaigners.

Police have defended their actions by arguing that they thought the protestors were members of a violent anarchist organisation known as the Black Block.

The allegations of police brutality in Genoa have led to a formal judicial inquiry.

Types of Protesters

Human Rights Watch has condemned the destruction of property and violent acts by some protesters.

Anti-globalisation protestors tend to fall into one of three camps.

The first group contains those protestors who are unwilling to break any law. The majority of demonstrators fall into this category.

The second is made up of those who engage in peaceful civil disobedience in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Finally, there is a small camp of radical protestors who actively incite violence by hurling missiles or destroying property such as barricades, newsstands and shop windows.

Many would argue that they have effectively surrendered their right to assembly under the terms of the Universal Declaration, which only protects peaceful assemblies.

Alternatives to Demonstrations

Many anti-globalisation activists believe that violence takes the focus away from the movement's agenda. They have instead advocated organising constructive, non-violent alternatives to the explosive mass demonstrations.

Activists organised the World Social Forum, which meets annually in January. It is held in parallel with the business and government-led World Economic Forum. The last meeting was in Bombay, India.

The 100,000 attendees to the event discuss alternatives to global capitalism, opposition to militarism, and support for peace and social justice.