Freedom of assembly, a cornerstone of democracy, under threat in Ukraine
In an article about draft law No. 2450 “On the procedure for organizing and holding peaceful events”, Kateryna Bessarabova suggests that less than 20 years since Ukraine gained independence, totalitarianism could be on the rise. She speaks of human rights groups’ warnings regarding government plans to restrict freedom of gathering.
It speaks volumes that the Verkhovna Rada passed draft law No. 2450 in its first reading back in summer, yet it has been recalled and pushed now against a background of the flu scare, with claims that restrictions on public gatherings are justified.
The draft law would seriously restrict freedom of assembly, contains unconstitutional restrictions on freedom and numerous violations of Ukraine’s international commitments regarding peaceful assembly.
In the words of Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union [UHHRU] Executive Director, Volodymyr Yavorsky, “this draft law takes us back several decades and such lack of freedom has long not been seen in Ukraine”.
Ukrainian human rights activists have analyzed the bill and found a huge number of flaws, in other words, violations of human rights. The new draft law would restrict the meeting place for rallies; establish time periods for holding protest actions; significantly increase the authority of the police and officialdom to interfere with citizens’ freedom of assembly.
Volodymyr Yavorsky explains that the draft law prevents the holding of spontaneous peaceful gatherings since prior notification is demanded. This means that immediate protest over something which has just happened would not be possible, since the new bill stipulates that the relevant authorities must be informed in advance. The bill also prohibits the holding of counter-demonstrations.
Member of the Public Committee on Human Rights attached to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Volodymyr Chemerys is also outraged that nowhere in the Constitution or other documents is there any mention of the Cabinet of Ministers having the right to regulate organization of peaceful gatherings. very draft law has “On the whole this document has no legal force, yet it has already taken on practical force, for example, in Odessa where any mass events as a development of this initiative have been banned. In principle it is possible to prohibit them but on condition of a state of emergency being imposed and with the President’s signature, and that’s also if the decree is passed by the Verkhovna Rada within two days.”
Volodymyr Yavorsky also notes that the bill is based on the erroneous premise that participants in a gathering obediently heed all instructions etc from the gathering’s organizers. The latter bear liability for the people taking place and even for damage caused by participants “The author of the draft law has clearly not taken into account a certain degree of chaos in such events and their spontaneous chaotic nature”, he notes.
Member of the youth organization “Regional Initiatives Foundation” Mykhailo Lebid points out that such overtly undemocratic laws are in force in Kazakhstan and Belarus where they are systematically used against civic activists and ordinary members of the public. Ukraine, however, had seemingly positioned itself as a law-based society.
As already reported, the Ministry of Justice in 2006 drew up a draft law “On procedure for organizing and holding meetings, rallies, marches, demonstrations and pickets” which was posted for public discussion on the Ministry’s website. UHHRU then made a considerable number of comments, and presented an alternative draft law.
Following public discussion, both draft laws were sent to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission which issued a Joint opinion on the draft law on peaceful assemblies in Ukraine with many comments regarding the Government’s draft law. On the basis of these opinions, the decision was taken to combine the draft laws into one. One version of the draft law was produced, with this subsequently being changed considerably. Later, during the second half of 2007 and beginning of 2008, the preparation of the draft law continued without public involvement. A large number of comments were added which fundamentally changed the draft law, despite the Venice Commission’s recommendations.
This draft law was quite unexpectedly and without public discussion, tabled in parliament by the Cabinet of Ministers in May 2009 with significant changes which do not take into account the Venice Commission’s assessment or UHHRU proposals
The draft law is now being reviewed without any openness or discussion. “As if it weren’t enough that the law obstructs all possibility for peaceful assistance, gives the authorities the right to ban any demonstration, expression of will because according to this document it follows that all gatherings are total infringements. Such a law is simply inconceivable in a democratic country! We put forward our proposals yet received no response and now the preparation for the second reading is taking place away from public view. The conclusion is depressing: one of the fundamental laws for civic society is virtually a secret concealing violations of norms of international law”, Volodymyr Yavorsky says.
As Dmytro Sinchenko from “Youth Watch” notes, it is incredible that this law has been put forward by politicians who in pre-election campaigns can certainly not do without demonstrations, meetings, and public gatherings. Youth Watch has found that the draft law runs counter to the pre-election programmes of absolutely all political forces represented in parliament, yet the bill in its first reading was supported by 228 representatives of all factions besides the Communist Party.
Serhiy Movchan, a participant in many protests, is convinced that the authorities even now have a selective approach to protests while the adoption of the draft law would remove restraints on the police, while binding the hands of participants.
In a word, the draft law does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights or with OSCE recommendations on reviewing legislation regarding freedom of assembly (approved by the Venice Commission.)
Ukrainian activists are convinced that the draft law needs conceptual reworking and it would be a crime to pass it in its present form or with certain cosmetic changes.