Powers designed to combat terrorism have been repeatedly misused to curb peaceful protest, a new report from Amnesty International has found. A right not a threat: Disproportionate restrictions on demonstrations under the State of Emergency in France reveals that hundreds of unjustified measures restricting freedom of movement and the right to peaceful assembly have been issued under the guise of countering terrorism.
“Emergency laws intended to protect the French people from the threat of terrorism are instead being used to restrict their rights to protest peacefully. Under the cover of the state of emergency, rights to protest have been stripped away with hundreds of activists, environmentalists, and labour rights campaigners unjustifiably banned from participating in protests,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
Following the horrific Paris attacks on 13 November 2015, France’s state of emergency, introduced a day later, has been renewed five times normalising a range of intrusive measures. These include powers to ban demonstrations on vague grounds and prevent individuals attending protests. Last week, President Macron indicated that he will ask parliament to extend it for a sixth time. The state of emergency allows prefects to ban any gathering as a precautionary measure on very broad and undefined grounds of ‘threat to public order’. These powers to restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly have frequently been used disproportionately.
Between November 2015 and 5 May 2017, authorities used emergency powers to issue 155 decrees prohibiting public assemblies, in addition to banning dozens of protests using ordinary French law. They also imposed 639 measures preventing specific individuals participating in public assemblies. Of these, 574 were targeted at those protesting against proposed labour law reforms. Moreover, according to media reports, authorities imposed dozens of similar measures to prevent people from participating in protests after the second round of the presidential elections on 7 May.
One labour law protestor told Amnesty International: “You get the impression that they use any means at their disposal to attack those who are the most active in the movement.”
Charles, a young student living in Paris, was prohibited from attending two protests against labour law reforms on the grounds that he had been previously arrested, though not charged, at a protest. He told Amnesty International: “They accused me of being one of the violent demonstrators…I felt like I had been treated like a terrorist, like someone dangerous.”
These restrictions breach the presumption under international law that a demonstration should be assumed to be peaceful unless authorities can show otherwise. Protests are being seen as a potential threat rather than a fundamental right.
In defiance of the restrictions under the state of emergency, many have continued to protest. However, those who braved the restrictions have frequently been met with unnecessary or excessive force by the security forces. Batons, rubber bullets and tear gas have been used against peaceful protesters who did not appear to threaten public order.
Whilst some of those involved in these public assemblies did engage in acts of violence, hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters suffered injuries at the hands of police. The Street Medics, an informal movement of first-aid workers, estimated that in Paris alone, around 1,000 protesters were injured by police during protests against the labour law reforms. Amnesty International has seen video evidence of four police officers kicking and beating Paco, a 16-year-old student, with batons before arresting him. Two witnesses told Amnesty International that Paco was not engaging in violence when he was attacked by the police.
Jean-François, a 20-year-old student who lost his left eye when he was shot by police with a rubber bullet, told Amnesty International: “I am very angry. Before that I tended to trust the police.”
“By drastically lowering the bar for restricting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, France’s state of emergency has resulted in the egregious misuse of what were designed to be exceptional measures to counter terrorism. People peacefully exercising their right to assembly have been swept up in a crude anti-terrorism net. In the run-up to the election, Emmanuel Macron promised to protect the right to protest in France. Now he is President, he must turn his words into action. With the battle lines already being drawn between the new president and the unions on labour law reform, President Macron must stop the misuse of anti-terrorism powers to restrict peaceful protest and end France’s dangerous and dizzying spiral towards a permanent state of emergency,” said Colm O’Gorman.