Fighting for the Public Square

Countries around the world, both democratic and authoritarian, are cracking down on freedom of assembly. It’s time to push back.

As citizens gather in city squares from Caracas to Kiev to Cairo, governments are showing symptoms of agoraphobia, which literally means fear of an agora or «place of assembly.» In Swedish, this anxiety disorder is called torgskräck, or «fear of the square.»

In cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares. For example, in Bahrain, the government bulldozed Pearl Square to stymie the country’s 2011 reformist movement and prevent citizens from assembling there. In other countries, governments have erected physical barriers to restrict access to civic space. In Egypt, the military recently erected ten-foot iron gates to control access to Tahrir Square, which has become famous in recent years as a hub of protest activity. (In the photo above, an anti-Mubarak protester attaches an Egyptian flag to the barbed wire surrounding Tahrir Square in 2011.) Similarly, in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, the only public square in Kampala. On March 20, 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, restricting access to the digital agora.


Supplementing physical and electronic barriers, many governments are erecting legal barriers to civic space. In January 2014, Cambodia issued a blanket ban on all public gatherings. Days later, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine enacted legislation imposing five year prison sentences on protestors if they blocked government buildings, and allowing the authorities to seize the cars of people participating in «Automaidan» protests. Shortly after, the Venezuelan government brought criminal charges, including arson and conspiracy charges to imprison citizens engaged in peaceful assemblies. These are but a few recent examples of the global agoraphobia pandemic.

To a certain extent, this is nothing new. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for his provocative discussions in the Athenian agora. But in the wake of the «Color Revolutions» in the former Soviet Union, the Arab Awakening, and the current wave of protests sweeping the world, an increasing number of governments are using the law to restrict peaceful assemblies.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than twenty countries have recently considered or enacted legal restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.

This phenomenon is occurring in countries across the political spectrum. In 2012, autocratic Azerbaijan was criticized for adopting a law that imposes $10,000 fines on participants in unauthorized assemblies. In 2013, the democratic Spanish government proposed a bill that included fines up to $830,000 on participants of unauthorized protests near parliament. Yielding to popular pressure, the government backtracked slightly, lowering the proposed maximum fine to approximately $41,000. The imposition of fines on unauthorized protesters contradicts international best practices, whether or not the country is a long-standing democracy.


On the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., assemblies that exceed 24 consecutive hours or seven consecutive days are considered illegal. It is also unlawful to sleep or lie down between sunset and sunrise, or to set up or store sleeping bags, tents, or shelter of any kind. In 2011, a congressional committee launched an investigation of the National Park Service, claiming that it ignored federal law by allowing Occupy protestors to camp and kill «newly planted grass


Autocratic governments are not the only ones use these precedents to avoid addressing constraints on civil society. In March 2014, Clare Short, a former U.K. cabinet official who chairs the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, dismissed concerns about legislation with devastating impact on the human rights community in Ethiopia. According to the Rt. Hon. Short, there is «a serious problem of double standards,» noting that «removing the Occupy protesters from outside St Paul’s Cathedral by force in my own country hardly raised a murmur.» Ms. Short’s response drew significant criticism, but it illustrates how restrictive practices by democratic nations reverberate internationally.



Agoraphobia is a global contagion, and no country is immune. To address this pandemic, international institutions, governments, and civil society must embrace a holistic treatment plan.

First, global and regional institutions must enhance norms protecting peaceful assembly. International norms on the freedom of assembly are just beginning to take shape. The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently established a U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of assembly. He has written three pioneering thematic reports, but his reports are not binding international law.


To bolster international norms, the UNHRC has adopted several resolutions on peaceful assembly. These resolutions, however, are increasingly contested and limited in scope. Accordingly, the special rapporteur, the UNHRC, and other global bodies must continue to develop international norms governing freedom of assembly. But norm development cannot stop there. Regional bodies, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, must develop norms at the regional level. In addition, civil society in the Global South must press their governments to support civic space and civil society, noting that India and South Africa recently aligned themselves with countries including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Belarus on civil society issues.


Second, governments must reform their national laws and practices. International norms have little impact if they are not enshrined at the national level. Democratic nations must lead by example, revising their laws and practices to safeguard civic space and to avoid charges of hypocrisy. In addition, countries such as Ukraine have expressed interest in conforming their legislation to international standards. Donor and experts with comparative expertise must be prepared to respond to appeals from countries requesting assistance. In addition, like-minded governments must increase their political support for multilateral initiatives, such as the Community of Democracies Working Group, which plays a critical role in mobilizing diplomatic engagement when restrictive laws are proposed.


Third, the international community must focus on frontlines. In many countries, security personnel receive limited or no training on how to manage protests in a peaceful, democratic manner. Under the auspices of the special rapporteur or another international body, an initiative should be launched to compile and share good practices, complemented by in-person training programs.


The international community should also support the creation of a global network of independent, professionally trained protest monitors — similar to the election monitors that already operate around the world. In addition, civil society should develop a toolkit on how the international community can help people on the frontlines when violations occur. Options could include «communications» by U.N. special rapporteurs, emergency support through the multilateral Lifeline initiative, diplomacy, and trial monitoring, while recognizing that the international community must follow the lead of in-country colleagues to determine what would be helpful in a particular context.


The teenage years of the 21st century have become an era of protest. Cornerstone concepts of civic space are being debated, developed, and, at times, violently contested. Citizens are demanding democracy, dignity, and development. In response, governments have come down with severe cases of agoraphobia. Through a holistic response encompassing international, national, and frontline actions, it is possible to contain this global pandemic.








Fighting for the Public Square.

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