The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Serbia 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.
Serbia is also a 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, Serbia 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 6 April 2020, Serbia informed the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe that the decree of a state of emergency issued on 15 March 2020 contained measures that “have derogated from certain obligations provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the epidemiological situation and medical necessity”. Serbia did not detail in its notification which rights were being derogated from but stated that their action was consistent with Article 15 ECHR, which exempts certain fundamental rights from the possibility of derogation. In October 2020, it withdrew the derogation.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Article 54 of the 2006 Constitution of the Republic of Serbia governs the freedom of assembly:
Citizens may assemble freely.
Assembly held indoors shall not be subjected to permission or registering.
Gathering, demonstrations and other forms of assembly held outdoors shall be reported to the state body, in accordance with the law.
Freedom of assembly may be restricted by the law only if necessary to protect public health, morals, rights of others or the security of the Republic of Serbia.
A new Law on Public Assembly entered into force in February 2016.Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia No. 6/16.The Law restricts where assemblies may be held, alllows broad justifications for prohibiting an assembly, and does not provide for judicial review and effective remedy in cases of unlawful denial of the right of peaceful assembly.
According to the authorities, assemblies are not allowed in a place where, due to the characteristics of the site itself or its special purpose, it would pose a danger or a threat to the safety of persons, property, public health, morals, the rights of others, or State security.
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.
Law enforcement in Serbia is primarily conducted by the Police of Serbia. Article 65 of the 2016 Law on Police of Serbia stipulates that:
In exercising police powers, the police officer shall act in accordance with the law and other regulations and shall abide by the standards laid down in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the European Code of Police Ethics and other international acts relating to the Police.
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.
The use of firearms is regulated under Article 124 of the 2016 Law on Police of Serbia:
In the performance of police duties a police officer may use firearms only if he cannot achieve a legitimate policing goal by using other means of coercion and when it is absolutely necessary to repel a simultaneous unlawful life-threatening attack against himself or another person.
An unlawful life-threatening attack against a police officer or another person within the meaning of paragraph 1 of this Article means an attack with firearms, imitation firearms, dangerous tool or an attack with another object, or attack in another way which may threaten the life of a police officer or another person.
The use of firearms shall not be allowed when it endangers other persons’ lives, unless the use of firearms is the only means for performing the tasks referred to in paragraph 1 of this Article.
The use of firearms shall not be allowed against juveniles, except when it is the only way of defence from an imminent attack or threat.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2017 Concluding Observations on Serbia, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern
about aspects of the application of the Public Assembly Act of 26 January 2016 that might hinder, not facilitate, protection of the right to freedom of assembly.
The Committee called on Serbia to "review the application of the Public Assembly Act of 26 January 2016 so as to ensure its compatibility with the Covenant".
There have been no cases against Serbia before the European Court of Human Rights concerning alleged violations of the right of peaceful assembly or excessive police use of force against demonstrators.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2021 report on Serbia:
Citizens are generally able to exercise freedom of assembly, though over 30 ongoing prosecutions were launched against activists associated with the protest movement Ne davimo Beograd (Don’t Drown Belgrade), which had organized demonstrations against the contentious development project on Belgrade’s waterfront, in the recent past.
After the Vučić administration instituted a COVID-19-related lockdown in Belgrade in July 2020, thousands of demonstrators rallied against the announcement, the government’s overall pandemic response, and Vučić’s conduct as president. Riot police in Belgrade responded forcefully, targeting participants, bystanders, and journalists with physical attacks, chases, and tear gas. Protests, which were also held in several other cities, continued for several days after the government reversed its decision to initiate the lockdown.