Why March 16?

Every year the commemoration of World War II dead soldiers on March 16 stirs interest internationally. Thus several questions need to be answered:
  • What is the day about?
  • Why do public gatherings take place?
  • What is the Government’s position towards the events?

What is the day about? 16 March is an unofficial day of commemoration of the war dead– as one might expect, by church memorial services and flower laying. Why is it not an official day of commemoration - because the state of Latvia was occupied during the war and could not exercise its power, moreover, it did not have an army of its own, the former officers of the Latvian army were in their majority massacred and punished by the USSR occupation forces in 1940. Also, there was no Latvian state to protect its citizens against being drafted in both the occupying armies, the Nazi and the USSR.

  • The commemorated are the fallen members of the Latvian Legion – the official name given by the Nazi Germans was „Latvian SS Volunteer Legion”
    • The name was and is misleading:
      • It was not “volunteer” but based on conscription. Draft avoidance was initially punishable by prison, later in the war punishable by death.
      • Why the name „volunteer” was attached notwithstanding the above? Because the creation of the Latvian Legion was a Nazi crime – in accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907 inhabitants of occupied lands may not be drafted.1  „Volunteer” was a way of circumventing that.
    • The members of Latvian Legion were not SS, they did not swear allegiance or belong to any Nazi organizations – because of the Nazi racial theories, only Germans could become members of SS organization.
      • For Nazis the Latvians were cannon fodder. Perhaps the best proof for absence of Nazi sympathies is the fact that after the war former members of the Legion were guarding Nazi leadership during Nuremberg trials. It is impossible to imagine that the Allied Command would have entrusted this to suspected Nazi sympathizers.
    • The Latvian Legion was a frontline unit, one third of its soldiers died in the front.
      • No member of the Legion was ever convicted of war crimes as a member of the Legion.
  • The commemoration of March 16 started soon after the end of World War II in Western Europe. For the past 20 years commemoration events have also taken place in Latvia.
    • These events have no ideological basis. No Nazi uniforms, symbols or slogans appear on 16 March. The use of Nazi symbols is prohibited in Latvia.
  • The commemoration is a sensitive subject which still raises emotions because of the men commemorated did fight on the side of the Nazi Germany. This year the authorities had received seven requests for events or counter-events on 16 March in Riga.
    • Riga City Council did not authorize any of them, courts have overruled these decisions on two of the events and is expected to rule on others.

Why do public gatherings take place? It is clear that this subject is a controversial one. So why are commemorations allowed? For this question the answer is the European Convention of Human Rights, in particular its Article 11 – Freedom of assembly and association

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
  2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
  • The case law of the European Court of human rights shows that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is considered to be one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. Thus, it should not be interpreted restrictively.2 The Court has stated that “The positive obligation of a State to secure genuine and effective respect for freedom of association and assembly was of particular importance to those with unpopular views”.
  • In the context of the disruption of a demonstration by counter-demonstrators, the Court has confirmed that the right to freedom of assembly may entail positive obligations on the state to provide protection of peaceful protestors, however leaving for states a wide discretion as to the reasonable and appropriate measures to be taken to enable lawful demonstrations to proceed peacefully. „A demonstration may annoy or give offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims that it is seeking to promote. The participants must, however, be able to hold the demonstration without having to fear that they will be subjected to physical violence by their opponents; such a fear would be liable to deter associations or other groups supporting common ideas or interests from openly expressing their opinions on highly controversial issues affecting the community. In a democracy the right to counter-demonstrate cannot extend to inhibiting the exercise of the right to demonstrate.3

What is the Government’s position towards the events? The Government position on the 16 March events is simple and clear.

  • Latvia strongly condemns all totalitarian ideologies and the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during World War II. Latvia categorically denounces Holocaust as the most abhorrent crime of the Nazi regime and mourns its victims.
  • 16 March is not an official day of commemoration. Government representatives do not take part in the events.
  • Latvia as a democratic country ensures all fundamental human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of assembly.
  • Law enforcement agencies will work to ensure that these events maintain their peaceful character and that no forbidden totalitarian symbols are used.

1 Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907 Art. 45. It is forbidden to compel the inhabitants of occupied territory to swear allegiance to the hostile Power.

2 E.g. G. v. Germany (No. 13079/87), Commission’s decision of 6 March 1989, DR 60, p.256.; Rassemblement jurassien and Unité jurassienne v. Switzerland (application No. 8191/78), Commission’s decision of 10 October 1979, DR 17, p.93..; Rai and Others v. the United Kingdom (application No. 25522/94), Commission’s decision of 6 April 1995, DR 81-A, p.146.

3Plattform "Ärzte für das Leben" v. Austria (No.10126/82), Judgment of 21 June 1988, para. 32

Karina Pētersone Director, Latvian Institute, 15.03.2012