Fears over threat to free speech as Europe restricts pro-Palestine protests

UN expert warns France, Germany and Austria are curtailing human rights by adopting hardline response

A number of European countries are taking tough measures to prevent pro-Palestinian protests. Getty Images
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European hostility to protests on the plight of Gaza has led a UN special rapporteur to warn the right of freedom to demonstrate is under strain due to countries' use of legal levers to ban pro-Palestine marches.

Since Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel, authorities across Europe, notably in Germany and France, have taken measures to quell protests by pro-Palestinian supporters.

From adapting existing laws to using powers under their terrorism acts, numerous countries have implemented bans on marches, chanting, flag-waving and the use of certain slogans.

UN special rapporteur Clement Voule told The National the measures could erode human freedom.

“I am concerned about the continuing global undue restrictions, including impositions of blanket bans, by states around the world on protests, especially those in defence of Palestinians’ rights and those calling for a ceasefire in the Israel/Hamas armed conflict,” he said.

“This sets a very worrying precedent that could have a great impact on the exercise of our fundamental rights and freedoms.”

He said in times of crisis like today, people should have “space to raise their voices, grievances and solidarity, and calls for peace, justice and security”.

He said the banning of rallies has been “disproportionate and arbitrary” and could result in “a serious impact on our freedoms”.

Among several European countries to have explored legal options, Germany has banned marches and slogans and France is looking to bring in new legal powers to fine people who criticise Israel publicly.

“This would be very damaging for democracy and could contribute to strengthening the rise of authoritarianism around the world,” Mr Voule said.

“It would be a major setback for human rights as a whole. The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression are vital for the protection and promotion of all human rights and they are vital for marginalised groups to be included in the decision-making.”

Amnesty International has also raised concerns and told The National the speed at which governments have acted to impose measures is at “fever pitch”.

What steps have been taken?

Germany has taken a tough stance against the attack on Israel by banning Hamas and its hallmarks – which includes the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

In contrast, the Netherlands has decided the phrase is “not hateful”.

It is one of several measures Germany is taking to tackle pro-Palestine protests, which have led to marches being banned, the closure of an organisation called Samidoun, which it has accused of spreading anti-Jewish propaganda, and raids on centres with suspected links to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Former diplomat Hans-Jakob Schindler, of the Counter Extremism Project, said Germany's measures show that to be treated as a potential threat groups no longer have to openly call for violence.

“Of course, support for Hamas, or attempts to support Hamas, will not necessarily stop in Germany but every time you have one of these bans it makes it more difficult, it makes it harder, it makes it riskier for individuals,” he said.

Courts prevented the government imposing blanket bans, so it instead circumnavigated existing legislation to prohibit rallies on a case-by-case basis under the guise that they pose a potential risk to public order.

Incitement to hatred and the burning of Israeli flags “are not examples of people embracing their freedoms. These are crimes”, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

Germany's government is also seeking legal changes to punish people who criticise Israel and is reviewing the law on incitement to give it the power to strip people of citizenship if they support Hamas.

Officials in Berlin gave schools the power to ban Palestinian keffiyeh headscarves and imagery of the map of Israel in the colours of Palestine.

France stepped back from a blanket ban on marches but relinquished power to local authorities to assess whether it would cause a potential risk to public order.

Free speech in Europe has been narrowed in record time. It is leaving victims without any voices
Julia Hall, Amnesty International

Its government is proposing new laws to punish those who deny the existence of Israel with up to five years' in prison or heavy fines for offences such as insulting Israel or provoking hatred or violence against Israel.

In London, attempts to ban marches which coincided with Armistice Day floundered and efforts by former home secretary Suella Braverman to ban flag-waving were not supported by the police.

But officers still successfully used public order legislation to remove dozens of protesters from a sit-in at King's Cross Station near the city centre.

It is examining new measures to lower the threshold for banning a march that is considered to pose an existential risk to the right of assembly.

Protests have also been banned in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Switzerland.

The Netherlands has given powers to its mayors to intervene in pro-Hamas demonstrations and some protests have been forced to relocate.

The Dutch government failed in a bid to condemn the use of pro-Palestinian slogans as inciting violence.

Spain and Italy have allowed public demonstrations on the matter.

Fears more draconian measures will be introduced

Amnesty International’s expert on counter-terrorism and human rights in Europe, Julia Hall, told The National the fast pace with which measures are being introduced are “very concerning”.

“What people can say and do is narrowing by the day,” she said.

“France is particularly problematic, they are proposing to criminalise people who criticise Israel. What we are seeing is something new.

“We have gone from marches being banned to the narrowing of what speech can be used.

“Free speech in Europe has been narrowed in record time. It is leaving victims without any voices.

“I do not think this will be a one-off.

“The chilling effect of this is that people are afraid. It will create silence among people who would have gone out and protested and it really is very worrying.”

UN criticises politicians for inflammatory rhetoric

The UN has criticised the language that has been used by some politicians.

In the UK, Ms Braverman came under fire from opposition politicians for “sowing the seeds of hatred” for her use of "inflammatory language" after she branded pro-Palestinian demonstrations “hate marches”.

“Banning peaceful protests, or branding them as “hate protests”, further contributes to polarisation,” Mr Voule said.

“Politicians and leaders should ensure responsible use of language and avoid the use of such divisive and vague rhetoric, which also leads to stigmatisation of certain groups.

“I am also concerned about reports indicating political pressure towards law enforcement to restrict or ban pro-Palestinian protests, which raises further concern that restrictions are for political purposes rather than for legitimate reasons allowed by law.

“It is in the time of war that people need to come together and voice their discontent and pressure the belligerents to stop the violence and to prevent the commission of grave human rights violations and war crimes.

Mr Voule added: "Recent examples show the importance of anti-war protests such as in the context of the Iraq war, Vietnam War, among others. We were all allowed to protest then, although we had different positions.

“This time should not be different – people should be allowed to protest in the context of the continuing war in Gaza and to stop the unfolding humanitarian crisis and suffering of civilians.”

Updated: November 20, 2023, 12:57 PM