For Liberties final Democracy Drinks of 2023 we invited guest speaker Paula Zimmermann from Amnesty International Germany to discuss mounting threats to the right to protest in Germany. Our eye-opening discussion shed a light on Germany’s increasingly heavy-handed approach when responding to direct action by climate activists and demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine.
Pandemic pivot towards preventative measures
The role of the state is to facilitate the right to protest of participants, while also securing the rights of everyone else. According to Paula, the Covid-19 pandemic marked a turning point in how state governments carried out this responsibility. Whereas previously their efforts focused on policing events and responding to threats as they arose, around this time authorities began using preventative measures such as protest bans that had rarely been touched before.
Climate activists have borne the brunt of this more restrictive approach, which outlived the immediate danger posed by the Covid-19 virus. In Bavaria, supporters of the climate action group Last Generation were placed in preventative detention to preclude them from engaging in civil disobedience, which can last for up to 30 days. The use of laws designed to fight organised crime and terrorism is justified by framing climate activists as threats to national security.
The unprecedented bans on demonstrations sympathising with Palestine follow a similar logic. In 2022 and again in 2023, the Berlin Assembly Authority pre-emptively prohibited all demonstrations commemorating the Nakba, an important day in Palestinian history, on the grounds that they posed a threat to public safety. The Berlin police cit
ied the “strong emotionalization” and even a “clearly aggressive general attitude and tendency towards violent acts” within the “Arab diaspora, in particular with a Palestinian background” and the young age of the participants. While the response across Germany has been fractured, many states also banned marches in solidarity with Palestine in the aftermath of October 7th. These bans were justified by the governing authorities on the basis that there was a heightened risk of violence.
‘Is it safe to protest in Germany?’
While people are still free to organise and attend protests within Germany, the erosion of freedom in the name of national security gives cause for alarm. Police use of surveillance technology is becoming more common, and some states are giving themselves new intrusive powers in the name of managing the safety of protests.
Classifying climate activist organisations as criminal associations would deliver another blow to the right to protest. Until now, authorities have Paragraph 129 of Germany's Criminal Code, which prohibits the “formation of criminal associations”, against climate activists for their investigation and intervention powers only - always stopping short of criminal prosecutions. However, in Brandenburg, the public prosecutor’s office has announced its intention to bring criminal charges against five climate activists belonging to the Last Generation. According to Paula, this would amount to an escalation of Germany’s crackdown on protestors.
German civil society is spooked by these recent developments, which fits into a worldwide trend of shrinking civic space. The risk that this harder line adopted by state authorities will deter people from protesting was borne out by a member of the audience, who asked whether it was still safe to attend demonstrations in Germany.
Although Paula believes people can still protest safely, she conceded that it was understandable why people might think twice - especially those who belong to a minority group.
The right to protest might still be intact in Germany, but - although it cannot be precisely measured - the chilling effect is already being felt.
Read our discussions at previous Democracy Drinks events: