On March 22, an ocean of people filled the streets of Madrid in the March for Dignity. It was a day-long, overwhelmingly peaceful protest against everything from austerity measures to corruption to the government’s intent to restrict access to abortion. But there were episodes of violence in the evening, with some 100 people, the majority of whom were police officers, suffering light injuries and 29 arrests.
Four days later Madrid mayor Ana Botella said she wanted to make virtually the entire city center off-limits for demonstrations. The next day the city council formally asked the central government to keep protests away from “artistic-historic settings, areas of high tourist concentration, and critical transportation axes” in Madrid. (Neither the mayor nor the council have the power to impose such restrictions themselves).
Spain’s interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz wasted little time in saying it made sense to circumscribe the right to protest to a specific place since “no right is absolute.” The minister’s intolerance is not surprising. He is behind a problematic draft public security law that would impose hefty fines for participating in spontaneous protests, obstructing an eviction, or insulting a police officer during a demonstration.
The right to protest is indeed not absolute, but any limitations must be strictly necessary and proportionate. Human rights law sets a high threshold for barring or punishing public demonstrations; unauthorized, annoying, or offensive peaceful protests can be perfectly legitimate. In keeping with the very strong protections guaranteed in the Spanish Constitution, as well as the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human rights, the Spanish Constitutional Court has said that a certain amount of disruption must be tolerated because “in a democratic society, the urban space is not only an area for circulation, but also for participation.”
The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiaia, has warned generally against measures that dislocate protests far from their intended object or target audience or that restrict demonstrations to certain areas. These measures, he says, can undermine the very essence of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
The violence of a few cannot justify trampling the rights of many. If there is violent disorder during a given demonstration, Spanish law enforcement officers can and should respond in a proportionate manner to the specific misconduct. Limiting the rights of all in Spain to raise their voices in peaceful protest on the other hand is anything but a proportionate response.