• Press Release

Europe: Sweeping Pattern of Systematic Attacks and Restrictions Undermine Peaceful Protest  

July 8, 2024

(Amnesty International)

Across Europe, the right of peaceful assembly is coming under severe attack as states increasingly stigmatize, criminalize and crack down on peaceful protesters, imposing unjustified and punitive restrictions and resorting to ever more repressive means to stifle dissent, said Amnesty International in a new report. 

Under-protected and over-restricted: The state of the right to protest in 21 countries in Europe, reveals a continent-wide pattern of repressive laws, use of unnecessary or excessive force, arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, unwarranted or discriminatory restrictions as well as the increasing use of invasive surveillance technology, resulting in a systematic roll back of the right to protest. 

“Amnesty’s research paints a deeply disturbing picture of a Europe-wide onslaught against the right to protest. Across the continent, authorities are vilifying, impeding, deterring and unlawfully punishing people who peacefully protest,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. 

“Throughout history, peaceful protest has played a pivotal role in the achievement of many of the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted. And yet across Europe, repressive laws and policies combined with unjustified practices and abusive surveillance technologies are creating a toxic environment which poses a serious threat to peaceful protesters and protests. One of these developments, on their own, in a single country, would be disturbing. But dozens of such repressive tactics on a continental scale is plainly terrifying.” 

Policing, impunity and surveillance  

The report finds widespread use of excessive and/or unnecessary use of force by the police against peaceful protesters, including use of less-lethal weapons. Reported incidents resulted in serious and sometimes permanent injuries including broken bones or teeth (France, Germany, Greece, Italy), the loss of a hand (France), the loss of a testicle (Spain), and dislocated bones, damage to eyes and severe head trauma (Spain). In some countries, the use of force amounted to torture or other ill-treatment and in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Serbia, and Switzerland, excessive use of force was used by law enforcement against children. 

The research found cases of police impunity or lack of accountability in numerous countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Türkiye and the UK. 

States are increasingly using new technology and various surveillance tools to carry out targeted and mass surveillance of protesters. This includes tracking and monitoring activities and collecting, analyzing and storing data. Several states have expanded surveillance through legislation without putting adequate safeguards in place, leaving these practices open to widespread abuse.  

There has been a marked increase in the use of facial recognition technology in Europe. It is currently used by law enforcement agencies in 11 of the countries examined, with a further six planning to introduce it. The use of facial recognition technology for identification of protesters amounts to indiscriminate mass surveillance, and no safeguards can prevent the harm it inflicts. Amnesty International has called for an outright ban on such technology. 

Demonizing protest 

The report identifies a disturbing trend of stigmatization by authorities aimed at delegitimizing protesters and protests. Harmful rhetoric from officials across the 21 countries is commonplace with protesters variously described as “terrorists”, “criminals”, “foreign agents”, “anarchists” and “extremists”. This negative rhetoric has been often used to justify bringing in ever more restrictive laws. 

Peaceful acts of civil disobedience have increasingly been framed as a threat to public order and/or national security, giving authorities a spurious pretext to impose restrictions and sidestep international human rights obligations.  

Demonizing rhetoric by high-level politicians has been particularly prevalent in response to Palestinian solidarity protests. In the UK, demonstrations were described as “hate marches” by the Home Secretary and “mob rule” by the Prime Minister. In Slovenia, the then Prime Minister told protesters in 2021 to “go home to where they came from” and in 2023 authorities encouraged their Twitter (X) followers to take photos of protesters because they might be “terrorists”.  

Elsewhere, authorities in Germany, Italy, Spain and Türkiye have not just framed climate activists as “eco-terrorists” or “criminals” but have also targeted them using terrorism-related provisions and laws related to combatting organized crime and protecting national security.  

Anti-protest legislation and criminalization 

Across Europe, states are flouting their international legal obligations to respect, protect and facilitate peaceful assemblies, to remove obstacles to protest and to avoid unwarranted interferences with the exercise of the right of peaceful assembly.

Although all 21 countries examined in the report have ratified the key human rights instruments protecting the right of peaceful assembly, many have failed to implement the international and regional provisions in domestic law. This – combined with the passing of repressive new laws, sweeping restrictions and burdensome requirements – has created an increasingly hostile environment for protest. 

In recent years, European governments have imposed sweeping restrictions on protests. Amnesty International’s research shows that the reasons given for these restrictions by authorities were often spurious, and governments often used “national security” and “public order” as pretexts to crack down on peaceful dissent. 

Spurious ‘public order’ or ‘public safety’ grounds used to ban or severely restrict Palestinian solidarity demonstrations across the region in the last months fail to comply with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality, but also entrench racial prejudice and stereotyping. In several of the countries examined, Palestinian solidarity protests have been targeted with bans and prohibitions on the use of certain chants and symbols. These bans have often been violently enforced by police.   

Across many of the countries examined, protest organizers are required to notify the authorities of plans to protest and face administrative and/or criminal penalties for non-compliance. Notifications procedures are an interference with people’s rights and are often used by states in ways which are unjustified and acceptable under international law. In four countries – Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden and Switzerland – protest organizers are required to apply for authorization to hold a demonstration. 

Failure to provide advance notification for a protest (or, where relevant, to seek permission) has been used to render an assembly ‘unlawful’, and thus to order its dispersal, arrest those involved and impose criminal sanctions on organizers and participants.  

In some countries, organizers are legally required to maintain security and order during assemblies, cover or contribute to costs for public services such as street cleaning, security and provision of emergency services and can even be held accountable and liable for costs of actions by participants. 

In eight countries, protests are never permitted to take place in certain areas such as the vicinity of government buildings, parliaments and other public buildings. Four countries impose time-related blanket bans, and several countries have imposed restrictions related to the so-called ‘content’ of protests with administrative and criminal sanctions in place for anyone who breaks these rules.

Targeting civil disobedience  

Despite the fact that peaceful civil disobedience – the premeditated breaking of the law for reasons of conscience – is protected by the right of peaceful assembly, states are increasingly framing it as a ‘threat’ to public order and/or national security and responding to it with ever harsher methods. These include unnecessary dispersals by police, use of excessive force, arrests based on laws lacking legal clarity, harsh criminal charges and sanctions that include prison sentences. 

Preventive provisions exist in Germany, Italy and the UK, allowing people to be banned from certain places or future activities – and in some cases detained – to prevent them from participating in acts of civil disobedience.  

Chilling effect and discrimination 

Indiscriminate mass surveillance, heavy-handed policing, burdensome requirements and the risk of criminal sanctions create fear and discourage participation in assemblies. 

This ‘chilling effect’ disproportionally impacts people from racialized and marginalized groups who are already at higher risk of violence, inequality, racial and other forms of discrimination by state officials, and who experience heightened barriers to participation and are therefore more likely to suffer from restrictions and repression.  

In several countries, the (perceived) identity of protest organizers and participants as well as the causes they mobilize for have influenced the restrictions authorities have imposed. Many countries seem to differentiate in a discriminatory manner between different protests movements, groups and causes. Restrictions imposed on protests, for example, organized by or in solidarity with racialized groups, LGBTI people, and migrants, asylum seekers or refugees were justified with inferences based on racial and gender-based stereotypes, manifesting institutional racism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination. 

In Germany, the demonstrations planned to mark the Palestinian Nakba in Berlin in 2022 and 2023 were pre-emptively banned based on harmful discriminatory stereotypes of expected participants, whom the police characterized as being ‘prone to violence’. In Poland and Türkiye, LGBTI people have experienced a heightened level of discriminatory restriction as well as harassment from the authorities for many years. 

“The right to protest in Europe risks suffering death by a thousand cuts with people who take to the streets facing an avalanche of increasingly repressive restrictions, criminal sanctions, state violence, discrimination, and pervasive surveillance. But in spite of these assaults, people are still protesting to preserve hard fought rights and to secure new rights,” said Catrinel Motoc, Senior Campaigner in Amnesty International’s Europe Regional Office. 

“Rather than restricting peaceful protest and punishing those who take to the streets, states across Europe must wholly rethink their approach. Protests should be facilitated rather than silenced, and the repressive web of laws enacted must be reformed to make them compatible with international human rights obligations.” 


Countries examined are Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Türkiye and the UK. 

The project forms part of Amnesty International’s global campaign Protect the Protest, which aims to defend the right to protest across the world. 

Contact: [email protected]