The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
North Macedonia 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.
North Macedonia 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, North Macedonia 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.
On 1 April 2020, North Macedonia informed the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe that it had restricted public assemblies, cancelling all public events, meetings and gatherings, and stated that the application of these measures “may influence the exercise of certain rights and freedoms under the Convention and in some instances give reason for the necessity to derogate from certain obligations of the Republic of North Macedonia” under Article 11 ECHR.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
The 1991 Constitution of North Macedonia (which, until February 2019, was known internationally as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) states that:
Citizens have the right to assemble peacefully and to express public protest without prior announcement or a special license. The exercise of this right may be restricted only during a state of emergency or war.Art. 21, 1991 Constitution of North Macedonia.
There is no dedicated national legislation governing assemblies in North Macedonia.
Under Article 385 of the 1996 Criminal Code, however, it is a criminal offence to participate in a crowd which commits a crime:
(1) A person who participates in a crowd, which with joint action performs acts of violence against people, or damages or destroys property to a larger extent, shall be punished with a fine, or with imprisonment of up to three years.
(2) If during the action of the crowd, some person was killed or sustained serious body injury, or a damage to a large extent was caused, the participant in the crowd, for the participation itself, shall be punished with imprisonment of three months to five years.
(3) The leader of the crowd shall be punished with imprisonment of one to ten years.
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 is directly regulated by the 2006 Law on Police. This law allows the use of physical force "to reject an assault, prevent the escape of a person or to overcome a person’s resistance".Art. 83, 2006 Law on Police.Chemical irritants (riot-control agents) are lawful to disperse an assembly "in cases of restoring public order and peace in a wider scope, as well as for forcing persons out of a closed area or for resolving hostage situations", but "the life and health of the citizens must not be jeopardised."Arts. 88 and 91, 2006 Law on Police.Use of chemical irritants in confined spaces is dangerous and may contravene international law.
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.
Under the 2006 Law, a police officer is authorised to use a firearm "when this is absolutely necessary and when by using other means of coercion the police tasks cannot be performed". It is, however, provided that:
Shooting in the air with the purpose of signalisation, asking for help and intimidation, as well as shooting at animals when they jeopardise the human lives, shall not be considered as use of firearms within the meaning of this Law.
Article 90, though, stipulates that:
The use of firearms is not allowed if it would jeopardise other persons’ lives, unless the use of firearms is the only means of defence from a direct assault, danger from assault against the life of other persons.
These provisions are more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2015 Concluding Observations on North Macedonia, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern
about reports that the demonstration that took place in Skopje on 5 May 2015 was dispersed by the police resorting to excessive violence against demonstrators and journalists, and that dozens of demonstrators were arrested and in some cases held in pretrial detention notwithstanding their lack of a criminal record and the relatively light nature of the charges brought against them.
The Committee called on the government to
effectively investigate all allegations of police violence against journalists and demonstrators in connection with the events of 5 May 2015. The State party should always attempt to resort to alternatives to detention in cases involving individuals who do not present a risk to public safety and should consider the impact of implementing its criminal laws against demonstrators on its duty to facilitate the right of peaceful assembly.
In the 2019 Universal Periodic Review of North Macedonia under the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders expressed her concern regarding the physical and psychological integrity of those working and advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons and working to promote equality and non-discrimination, particularly in exercising their right to freedom of opinion and expression and of peaceful assembly.
To date, the European Court of Human Rights has not found a violation of the right of peaceful assembly by North Macedonia.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on North Macedonia:
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly are generally well respected. However, protests have sometimes given way to property damage, and are typically monitored by riot police. In June 2018, a protest in Skopje against the Prespa Agreement turned violent when the police fired tear gas and flash grenades into the crowd to disperse the demonstration.