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.
On 20 March 2020, Armenia derogated from Article 21 ICCPR as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In its notification of derogation, Armenia noted that a 30-day state of emergency throughout the country had started on 16 March 2020 and that it was exercising its right of derogation from the obligations under Article 21 of the Covenant (among others). In mid-September 2020, Armenia withdrew its derogation and returned to full compliance.
At regional level, Armenia is a State Party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 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.
Armenia has made a similar declaration of derogation with respect to Article 11 ECHR as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-September 2020, Armenia withdrew its derogation.
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.
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020 Armenia suspended the right of assembly.
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. In its 2020 List of Issues in relation to the ICCPR,the Human Rights Committee asked Armenia to report on:
the amendments made to the law on freedom of assembly and comment on their compatibility with the Covenant. Please respond to reports of: (a) unjustifiable police interference in and disproportionate police presence at peaceful demonstrations; (b) arbitrary and prolonged detention of assembly participants without ensuring respect of their fundamental legal safeguards, including the right to legal assistance; (c) criminal proceedings initiated against assembly participants; and (d) the continued failure of the competent authorities to promptly investigate violations by police officers of the right to peaceful assembly and to bring the perpetrators to justice
In the context of Armenia's 2020 Universal Periodic Review, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association recommended that the authorities ensure that there was no discrimination in the application of the laws governing the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, in particular regarding the groups most at risk, such as national and religious minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups, children and women.
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.
Jhangiryan v. Armenia (2020)
The case concerned arbitrary prosecution and conviction of opposition supporters, linked to their participation in a protest movement. On 19 February 2008, a presidential election was held in Armenia. Immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results, an opposition candidate Mr Ter-Petrosyan called on his supporters to protest against the irregularities which had allegedly occurred in the election process, announcing that the election had not been free and fair. From 20 February 2008 onwards, nationwide daily protest rallies were held by Mr Ter-Petrosyan’s supporters. Mr Jhangiryan made a speech at one such rally, expressing his support for the opposition candidate and criticising the conduct of the presidential election. He was subsequently arrested and detained, and ultimately convicted for unrelated charges, against which he appealed unsuccessfully. He alleged that the true reason behind his prosecution and conviction had been to punish him as an opposition supporter and for his participation in the rallies.
The applicant's conviction for assault on police officers while in custody had been based exclusively on the testimony of the police officers concerned and the findings of fact made in that respect by the domestic courts appeared to have been a mere and unquestioned recapitulation of the circumstances as presented in those testimonies. Thus, the manner in which the proceedings relating to the charges had been conducted was strikingly similar to other cases where opposition activists had been prosecuted and convicted for similar acts, in similar circumstances and on the basis of similar evidence, which pointed to the existence of a repetitive pattern and cast doubt on the credibility of the criminal proceedings against the applicant. The Court held that as the true reason for the applicant's convictions had been his active participation in the protest movement, the impugned interferences with his freedom of peaceful assembly could only be characterised as manifestly arbitrary and, consequently, unlawful for the purposes of Article 11.
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
CIVICUS reported in 2021 on protests in relation to the November 2020 peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end the war in Nagorno Karabakh. Shortly after the agreement was signed, protests broke out in Yerevan, resulting in violence and the destruction of several government buildings, as people were dissatisfied with the territorial concessions made by Armenian authorities. Several public institutions were stormed, where furniture and other goods were destroyed. According to Radio Free Europe, thousands of protesters marched in Yerevan against the peace deal, asking for the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan and the withdrawal of the peace agreement. They were later joined by representatives of the opposition. The protests lasted for weeks, sparking a political crisis in Yerevan.
Over time, the protests became more numerous and in February 2021 the political situation worsened. On 25 February 2021, Prime Minister Pashinyan announced an attempt by the military to stage a coup. As a result, several thousand supporters of opposition parties took to the streets again to demand his resignation. Many of them spent the night in front of the parliament building, setting up tents and barricades. The protests continued almost daily, including in March 2021. The crisis ignited discussions between the country's president and prime minister, from which it was decided to hold early parliamentary elections. On 18 March 2021, an official announcement was made that early parliamentary elections will be held on 20 June 2021. Demonstrations continued in Yerevan at the end of March 2021 as protesters continued to demand Pashinyan’s resignation.
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.