The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Estonia 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.
Estonia 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, Estonia derogated from Article 21 ICCPR as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Estonia stated that all public gatherings had been prohibited.Text available at: bit.ly/3axy2Vo.
At regional level, Estonia 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.
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Estonia derogated from Article 11 ECHR in March 2020.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Everyone has the constitutional right, without prior permission, to assemble peacefully and to conduct meetings. Under Article 47 of the 1992 Constitution of Estonia (as amended):
Everyone has the right, without prior permission, to assemble peacefully and to conduct meetings. This right may be restricted in the cases and pursuant to procedure provided by law to ensure national security, public order, morals, traffic safety, and the safety of participants in a meeting, or to prevent the spread of an infectious disease.
The primary legislation governing the right of assembly in Estonia is the 2011 Law Enforcement Act. According to Section 67, prior notification to the relevant prefecture of the holding of a meeting is required at least four working days in advance only if:
1) the holding of the meeting requires reorganisation of traffic; or
2) the meeting is intended to be held outside a building or a construction intended for holding gatherings and for the holding of the meeting there are plans to set up a tent, stage, stand or other large-scale structure, or use sound or lighting devices or it may disturb or prevent the usual possession of the building or construction in another manner.
The authorities noted in Estonia's National Report for the 2015 Universal Periodic Review that the right of assembly
may be restricted in cases and pursuant to the procedure provided by law to ensure national security, public order, morals, traffic safety and the safety of participants in meetings, or to prevent the spread of an infectious disease.
The 2011 Law Enforcement Act, however,
stipulates the right to hold spontaneous assemblies, stating that no advance notice of spontaneous assemblies is required. Communication between the organisers of an assembly and state and/or local authorities is possible online; thus there is no necessity to be personally present at authorities to submit written forms or applications or pay state fees.
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.
Police use of force in Estonia is governed in detail by the 2011 Law Enforcement Act, which entered into force in 2014. Under Section 24(6) of the Act, "Direct coercion may not be applied for the prevention of a threat unless it is necessary for the prevention of a significant or serious threat." Use of force must also be proportionate to the threat.
Section 79 bis of the Act governs police use of water cannon, which may be used "against a crowd" to counter a serious threat, where necessary, and when "every effort is made in order not to jeopardise another significant benefit". It is further specified that: "The procedure for the use of a water cannon shall be established by the minister responsible for the field by a regulation."
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.
Section 81 of the 2011 Law Enforcement Act governs police use of firearms. Firearms may be used, where necessary, to:
1) counter an immediate threat to life or physical inviolability;
2) obstruct the commission of an imminent or ongoing violent criminal offence in the first degree or such a criminal offence for which life imprisonment may be sentenced as a punishment;
3) detain a suspect, accused or convicted offender or to hinder his or her escape if he or she may be deprived of liberty pursuant to law or if he or she has been deprived of it pursuant to law in relation to the commission of a violent criminal offence in the first degree or such a criminal offence for which he or she may be sentenced to life imprisonment as a punishment.
This is considerably more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2019 Concluding Observations on Estonia, the Human Rights Committee did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
There has been no case involving the right of peaceful assembly in Estonia before the European Court of Human Rights.