• A version of this post appeared on the blog "Freedom at Issue" on July 12. The views expressed are the author's own.
The right to form associations, clubs, and other groups, as well as to meet or talk with people individually without government interference, is identified as a fundamental freedom under Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is an essential component of any society. This freedom can be exercised by practicing one’s faith with fellow believers, forming labor unions and other civic groups, peacefully protesting unjust government policies, or simply forming human connections, in person or online, on issues of common interest. But in more than half of the world, this right is regularly infringed upon by governments, especially when it takes a form that antidemocratic regimes find threatening.
Today, on Global Freedom of Association Day, we highlight 10 of the most ridiculous ways in which the world’s more repressive governments have restricted freedom of association and assembly:
Watching the news: Punishable in Zimbabwe
Activists who gathered in Harare to watch television coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings last year were convicted of planning to foment a similar revolt in Zimbabwe. While the judge conceded that watching videos of the protests wasn’t a crime, he argued that the group aimed to stir up antigovernment sentiment by playing them. After several days of deliberation, the court decided not to imprison the six activists, but slapped each with a $500 fine and 420 hours of community service.
Walking to work: Punishable in Uganda
Activists for Change (A4C), a nonprofit group formed last April in Kampala, organized a “walk to work” campaign to protest rising food and fuel prices. The government called the walks a form of illegal assembly, and deployed security forces to break up the actions. Although some participants responded by throwing stones, according to Human Rights Watch, police and soldiers fired indiscriminately at both violent and nonviolent walkers, as well as journalists and bystanders.
Talking on your cell phone: Punishable in North Korea
North Korea is arguably the world’s most repressive state, and freedom of association, like other freedoms, is not respected there. However, the country hit a new low following the recent death of longtime leader Kim Jong-il, when authorities announced that anyone caught using a cell phone during the 100-day mourning period would be punished as “war criminals.”
Complaining when your land is stolen: Punishable in Cambodia
Objecting when commercial logging or development projects force you off your land is now cause for arrest in Cambodia, as individuals who dared to protest recent government-backed land grabs face punishment. Land disputes have reportedly affected at least 400,000 Cambodians. In one case in May, a group of women were convicted of “illegally obtaining land” after they attempted to rebuild their own homes in a peaceful demonstration.
Waving a rainbow flag: Punishable in Russia
Authorities in St. Petersburg recently passed a law that bans the promotion of “gay propaganda.” Police wasted no time in putting the measure into action. On May 1, they arrested 17 people for displaying rainbow flags, suspenders, and pins. Others have been held in custody for wearing badges with pink triangles, and one woman was arrested for holding a rainbow-like packet of colored felt-tip pens.
Women wearing white: Punishable in Cuba
Nineteen members of the Ladies in White, a prominent dissident group formed by the wives and mothers of political prisoners, were detained on March 17 as they prepared to march toward the city center. Three were released without facing charges. The next day, 36 members were stopped by police as they walked to church. After the service, another 22 were held in police custody.
Choosing your faith: Punishable (by execution) in Iran
The Islamic Republic’s constitution purportedly protects members of recognized minority faiths—Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians—so long as they do not proselytize. However, Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who converted to Christianity as a teenager and claims he has never been a practicing Muslim, was convicted of apostasy in 2010 and is facing execution for refusing to recant his faith. Adherents of the unrecognized Baha’i faith, who form Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority, enjoy virtually no rights under the law and are banned from practicing their religion.
Praying in public: Punishable in China
Unregistered Christian “house churches” in China often have difficulty finding places to worship, so after the evangelical Shouwang Church was forced out of its rental space last year, congregants attempted to hold Easter services outdoors. The planned site was swarmed by police, and dozens of church members were arrested. Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims also face severe restrictions on their ability to pray, study, and protest, and the Falun Gong spiritual movement is strictly prohibited.
Mingling behind closed doors: Punishable in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to associate with unrelated individuals of the opposite sex, apparently even if you are in your own home and are neither Saudi nor Muslim. In January, police raided a Christmas prayer gathering held at a private home by a group of Ethiopian Christians in the city of Jeddah. Thirty-five attendees were arrested—including 29 women—and charged with “illicit mingling.”
Just standing around: Punishable in Belarus
Although Belarusian authorities banned demonstrations following the contested reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in December 2010, protesters have used increasingly creative means to express their dissent in public. Nevertheless, they have faced prison time for a series of ludicrous offenses. Five hundred were sentenced to as many as 15 days in jail after holding nonverbal clapping protests over the course of several months. One activist was sentenced this year to 10 days in jail for arranging a protest by teddy bears. The authorities have been forced to use increasingly vague language in their efforts to outlaw these innocuous behaviors. In July 2011, Belarusian officials proposed a ban on gathering in public places to perform a particular “action or inaction,” essentially allowing police to arrest citizens for simply standing around.
Mary McGuire is a senior communications manager who blogs at Freedom House in Washington.