A protestor outside Downing Street in London. 'Expression that persuades, encourages or demands action on the part of a government is not a crime, no matter how offensive to some' (Photo: Alisdare Hickson)
Speaking out against injustice or joining a solidarity march are some of the few tools we — as peoples around the world — have available to try and effect change. Without the right to publicly and peacefully protest — to share messages on social media, write letters and sign petitions — people are silenced.
And yet, over the last month, moves by several European governments to curb expression and protest in response to the unprecedented violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) appear designed to do just that: stifle dissent, deny collective grief, foment fear of raising one’s voice and create a “chilling effect” that threatens to stop speech cold.
Authorities in a number of European states have banned Palestinian solidarity protests and harassed and arrested people for expressing — in public and online — support for Palestinians’ rights.
Some governments have threatened to shutter organisations and groups that advocate for human rights for Palestinians and to block funding for Palestinian, Israeli and regional human rights organisations.
Foreign nationals have been warned that they might be deported for expressing “radical ideologies” and authorities have supported measures by employers to sack people who speak up on behalf of Palestinians.
Schools, colleges and universities have been encouraged to be on high alert for signs of so-called “extremism” in the speech of their students.
Initially claiming that restrictions were necessary in the interest of “public order”, European governments have begun to employ a hack we have seen before: they have conflated support for Palestinian human rights with support for terrorism.
Since there is no universally accepted definition of “terrorism,” every state defines the word for itself, usually in overly broad and extremely vague terms, which has led to massive abuse of counter-terrorism legislation across the world.
The post 11 September 2001 era was — and remains — rife with counterterrorism and counter extremism measures that have radically narrowed civic space, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
The rapid manner in which this is happening across Europe at both EU and national levels would seem to indicate that, in the momentum for states to respond to the brutal Hamas attacks in southern Israel on 7 October, there simply has been overreach.
But I would argue that conflations between Hamas and all Palestinians; between Hamas and distinctly different armed groups such as ISIL; and between all Muslims and terrorism, are deliberate and intended to generate alarm and confusion.
Such fear-mongering has a logical outcome: people will be reluctant to stand up for the human rights of Palestinians and Muslims. In the midst of all that fear and uncertainty, better to say nothing at all.
By imposing measures linking expressions of solidarity with Palestinians specifically with support for or encouragement of terrorism, states have moved beyond the already dubious assertion that protests may be a threat to public order and into claims that they could threaten national security.
Authorities can thus try to claim an easy ‘out’ regarding their obligations under international human rights law because the European Court of Human Rights affords states a wide “margin of appreciation” on national security issues.
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States still have to justify measures that deviate from their human rights obligations by enshrining them in law and ensuring that every measure is necessary and proportionate. But specifically invoking support of terrorism as a threat to national security creates space and impetus for rights to be subordinated to alleged security imperatives.
This burgeoning narrative by many European states contradicts their human rights obligations. Direct incitement to violence, with the likelihood that such violence could occur, is a crime and should be treated accordingly. Any form of speech that incites people to violence, discrimination or hostility should be considered hate speech and those engaging in such speech should be held accountable.
Indeed, the last month has included a very real and frightening increase in both antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks. States should direct their efforts towards combatting genuine hate speech and hate crimes rather than banning or restricting protest or other forms of solidarity with Palestinians’ human rights.
Expression that persuades, encourages or demands action on the part of a government is not a crime, no matter how offensive to some.
Support for the human rights of Palestinians under Israel’s ongoing bombardment, apartheid and occupation, with their attendant daily abuses, is support for universal human rights, applicable to all, including Palestinians and Israelis.
Laws including vague terms like “apology for terrorism” or “glorification of terrorism” are open to such broad interpretation that they cannot be perfected to align with a state’s obligation to respect and protect freedom of expression. The prevailing trend in Europe of states using counter-terrorism laws as a pretext to silence dissenting views must stop.
States can get away with a lot by defining terrorism so broadly and instrumentalising the notion of what constitutes a threat to “national security.” A threat to national security must involve real danger of physical force that would imperil a nation.
European states have many tools at their disposal to respond to such extreme threats when they are genuine. Claiming that peaceful protests constitute such a threat is a violation of human rights and a dangerous weaponisation of counter-terrorism powers.
In 2022, Amnesty International launched a global Protect the Protest campaign to confront unprecedented worldwide threat to the right to protest.