The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Armenia is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Armenia is also a state party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Armenia is a state party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
The right of peaceful assembly is addressed in Article 44 of the 1995 Constitution of Armenia (as amended). The constitutional provisions include an explicit requirement for prior notification except for spontaneous assemblies:
1. Everyone shall have the right to freely organize and participate in peaceful and unarmed assemblies.
2. In cases stipulated by law, outdoor assemblies shall be conducted on the basis of prior notification given within a reasonable period. No notification shall be required for spontaneous assemblies.
3. The law may prescribe restrictions on the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly for judges, prosecutors, investigators, as well as servicemen of the armed forces, the national security, the police, and other militarized bodies.
4. The conditions and procedure of exercising and protecting the freedom of assembly shall be stipulated by law.
5. The freedom of assembly may be restricted only by law with the aim of protecting state security, preventing crimes, protecting the public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
National law "On freedom of assemblies" was adopted in 2011 to govern the freedom of assembly. Article 2(1) defines an assembly as "a temporary peaceful and unarmed presence of two or more individuals in any location for the purpose of formulating or expressing common opinion on issues of public interest".
Article 6(1) provides that any person "has the right to participate in assemblies (citizens of the Republic of Armenia, foreign citizens and stateless persons)".
Article 5 sets out the grounds for restricting the freedom of assembly:
1. The freedom of assembly may be restricted only in case, when in a democratic society the protection of state security or the public order, the prevention of crime, or the protection of public health and morals (hereinafter referred to as public interests) or of the constitutional rights and freedoms of others (hereinafter referred to as constitutional rights of others) are dominant in regard of the freedom of assembly.
2. It shall be prohibited to exercise the freedom of assembly for forcibly overthrowing the constitutional order, inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred, or advocating violence or war.
Article 9(1) concerns the requirements to notify the intention to hold an assembly:
To conduct a public assembly (hereinafter, assembly), the organizer shall give written notification to the authorized body, with the exception of assemblies with up to 100 participants, urgent and spontaneous assemblies.
Article 10 explains that the purpose of notification "is to ensure that the state can take the measures necessary for securing the natural and peaceful course of the assembly, as well as take necessary measures for protecting the constitutional rights of other persons and the interests of the public". Under Article 12, notification is to be presented no later than seven days and no earlier than 30 days prior to the assembly.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the state and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
The use of force by the Armenian Police is regulated by the 2001 Law on Police. Article 29 of this law stipulates that the use of force and firearms shall be an "exceptional measure".
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
With respect to firearms, Article 32(6) of the 2001 Law on Police provides that police officers are entitled to discharge firearms in case of, inter alia, "capturing or precluding the escape of the persons arrested on the suspicion of committing a grave or particularly grave crime against life, health, property, those having escaped from the places of detention or confinement, as well as in case of repulsing their violent attempts of release". This is more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Armenia has not come before the Human Rights Committee in recent years. Its 2015 Universal Periodic Review did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
In its 2016 Concluding Observations on Armenia, the Committee against Torture expressed its concern
at consistent reports of excessive use of force against protesters, including during the so-called Electric Yerevan protests of June 2015, when police used water cannons to disperse the demonstration and illegally detained 237 protesters. It is also concerned at the reported use of excessive force by law enforcement officials during the demonstrations of 17 to 31 July 2016, following the attack on a patrol service police regiment in Yerevan by a group of armed men....
The Committee called on Armenia to:
(a) Ensure that prompt, impartial and effective investigations are undertaken into all such allegations, that the perpetrators are prosecuted and that the victims are provided with redress;
(b) Ensure that all law enforcement officers receive systematic training on the use of force, especially in the context of demonstrations, and the employment of non-violent means and crowd control, and that the principles of necessity and proportionality are strictly adhered to in practice during the policing of demonstrations.
Alleged violations by Armenia of the right of peaceful assembly have been adjudicated by the European Court of Human Rights in a number of cases in recent years.
Ter-Petrosyan v. Armenia (2019)
The case concerned the applicant’s complaint about the dispersal of a protest rally at Freedom Square on 1 March 2008, the lack of an effective remedy, and his alleged placement under house arrest. The Court found a violation of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights by Armenia.
The Court reiterated its finding that the assembly's dispersal was "without sufficient justification and took place under somewhat dubious circumstances, apparently without warnings to disperse and with unjustified and excessive use of force, and that it was a disproportionate measure which went beyond what it was reasonable to expect from the authorities when curtailing freedom of assembly".
Mushegh Saghatelyan v. Armenia (2018)
This case concerned primarily the events culminating in the police operation of the early morning of 1 March 2008 in Yerevan. While technically it was a camp which was broken up as a result of the police operation in question, this was part of a much bigger assembly that had been going on at Freedom Square since 20 February 2008, attracting thousands of people. The Government argued that the assembly in question was not peaceful, alleging that the authorities had obtained evidence that weapons and ammunition were to be distributed to the demonstrators on 1 March 2008 in order to instigate mass disorder and that the demonstrators had been the first to attack the police at Freedom Square.
In its judgment, the Court reiterated that the burden of proving the violent intentions of the organisers of a demonstration lies with the authorities. It noted at the outset that
there is no evidence to suggest that the demonstrations held at Freedom Square from 20 February 2008, in protest against the conduct of the presidential election which many opposition supporters believed to have been flawed, involved incitement to violence or any acts of violence prior to the police operation conducted in the early morning of 1 March 2008. As to the Government’s allegation that the authorities had obtained evidence suggesting that the demonstrators had been planning to arm themselves in order to instigate mass disorder, the Court notes that the Government have failed to produce the evidence in question or even to provide any relevant details or explanations.
Views of Civil Society
In its 2019 report on Armenia, Freedom House stated that:
The right to free assembly is legally guaranteed but inconsistently upheld in practice. From March to May 2018, mass antigovernment demonstrations were organized across the country under the slogan Reject Serzh, aiming to stop the outgoing president from governing as prime minister. Despite some violent interference by police and the temporary detention of hundreds of protesters—including Pashinyan, the movement’s leader, in April—the demonstrations encountered fewer obstacles than those in past years.