Freedom of Association – Concept, importance and characteristics

We explain what freedom of association is, why it is important for society and how it is included among Human Rights.

freedom of association
The right to free association also includes the right to leave a group.

What is freedom of association?

Freedom of association or the right to free association is a fundamental human right, which is that any person or group of people can join freely to form associations, organizations or groups (or to withdraw freely from them).

This right defends those groups that have lawful purposes and respectful of the fundamental human rights of others. That is, this right does not protect those who associate to commit crimes.

Freedom of association is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in its article 20, which reads:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  • No one can be forced to belong to an association.

As stated right there, this fundamental freedom guarantees that only our own desire is what commits us to a certain group: we can join it if we want to (and if we meet its entry requirements), and we can abandon it if we want it that way. No one can compel us to do otherwise by force or coercion.

The right to free association is key to a healthy society, in which plurality and individual freedoms dominate, where people can join forces to achieve a goal or support an initiative, whether for profit or not. Political parties, commercial companies, ecological activists, support groups, community organizations and a long etcetera are examples of the types of association that this right guarantees.

There are notorious exceptions, linked to the public sphere and individual professional responsibility, such as professional associations, State institutions and other similar associations whose membership is mandatory for some or all citizens.

For example, the formal practice of law often requires the supervision of the bar association, in order to ensure ethics and responsibility in the practice of the profession. Even so, a person can freely unsubscribe, but must assume the consequence that their professional practice of the law will not be formally recognized.