This page considers flag burning, national symbols and free
It covers -
Overseas regimes about destroying or dishonouring national
symbols vary considerably.
Some states have been zealous in protection of their flags
and other symbols but endorsed defacement of symbols associated
with their enemies (eg Egypt and Turkey). Some states have
not prohibited destruction of their own symbols but have sought
to inhibit attacks on the symbols of other nations (eg Norway).
Some, such as the US, have recognised flag burning as protected
speech. Most nations restrict particular non-state symbols
(eg cross burning in the US and display of the swastika in
Germany and Austria), typically on the basis that use of such
symbols is intended to intimidate.
All have recourse to restrictions regarding demonstrations,
riots, arson, theft or other offences that might feature a
flag, portrait or other symbol.
There is no international agreement against flag burning as
such. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 (VC),
discussed in Eileen Denza's Diplomatic Law: A Commentary
on the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (Oxford:
Oxford Uni Press 2004), commits nations to protecting diplomatic
missions from interference and harassment. Articles 22 and
29 of the Convention, obligate national governments to take
all appropriate steps to protect another nation's mission
from damage to its premises, from attacks on the freedom,
person or dignity of its personnel, and from any disturbances
of the peace that impair the mission's dignity.
In practice some nations are more zealous about protecting
missions than others. Stances on the nature of 'dignity' and
impairment vary. As the preceding page noted, peaceful demonstrations
in Australia by Falun Gong members outside the Chinese Embassy
have been regarded as impairing that mission's dignity.
In other nations it has been common to observe officials standing
by, or even orchestrating, incineration of flags and effigies
or damage to insignia marking mission premises. (Rogue states,
such as Iran, have simply occupied the missions of the 'Great
Satan' and other foes.)
Canada does not have specific legislation to prohibit destruction
or defacement of flags, whether Canadian or of other nations.
Private members bills to introduce flag burning legislation
through amendment of the Criminal Code have not proceeded
to a second reading.
The UK, like Australia, does not have specific
restrictions against dishonouring the national flag (or the
personal standards of the head of state and other royal family
members). The extent of protection for flag burning as free
speech under EU and international human rights charters has
not been tested, for example through a case before the European
Court of Human Rights.
248 of the Austrian penal code, inherited
from the Third Reich, is concerned with "denigration
of the State and its symbols" and provides that
in such a manner that the act becomes known to the general
public, in a malicious way, insults and brings into contempt
the Austrian Republic and its States, is liable for imprisonment
for up to one year.
Whosoever, in the manner described in Paragraph 1, in a
malicious manner and at a public occasion or a function
open to the public, insults, brings into contempt or belittles
the flag displayed for official purposes or the national
or state anthems of the Austrian Republic or its States,
is liable for imprisonment of up to 6 months or a fine of
up to 360 times the fixed daily rate.
in France as part of 'internal security'
enactments passed in 2003 makes it an offence to insult the
national flag or anthem, with a penalty of a maximum £6,000
fine or up to 6 months imprisonment.
Restrictions on "offending against the dignity of the
Republic" include "insulting" anyone who serves
the public (potentially magistrates, police, firemen, teachers
and even bus conductors). The legislation reflected debate
after incidents such as booing of the Marseillaise at a France
v Algeria football match in 2002.
In Germany Section 90 of the Criminal Code
concerns 'Disparagement of the State and its Symbol'. It provides
Whoever publicly, in a meeting or through the dissemination
of writings (Section 11 subsection (3)):
1. insults or maliciously maligns the Federal Republic of
Germany or one of its Lands or its constitutional order;
2. disparages the colors, flag, coat of arms or the anthem
of the Federal Republic of Germany or one of its Lands,
shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three
years or a fine.
Whoever removes, destroys, damages, renders unusable or
unrecognizable, or commits insulting mischief upon a publicly
displayed flag of the Federal Republic of Germany or one
of its Lands or a national emblem installed by a public
authority of the Federal Republic of Germany or one of its
Lands shall be similarly punished. An attempt shall be punishable.
The expectation is that prosecution will address "efforts
against the continued existence of the Federal Republic of
Germany or against its constitutional principles".
In Hungary it is an offence to dishonour
the national flag, but not that of other nations, with Adam
LeBor quipping in 2004
you can hardly walk past a Starbucks or McDonald's without
someone setting an Israeli flag on fire.
of "Crimes Against the State" in Italy
features "Public insult or vilification of the flag or
any other emblem of the State". Article 292 of the Criminal
Code deals with anyone who "publicly insults or vilifies"
the national flag or "other emblem" of the State,
punishable by imprisonment for up to four years. It encompasses
those who publicly insult or vilify the national colours as
distinct from the flag.
In Norway there is no enactment relating
to desecration of Norway's own flag. However the General Civil
Penal Code, consistent with the Vienna Convention, protects
the flags and national coats of arms of other countries
Any person who in the realm publicly insults the flag or
national coat of arms of a foreign State, or who is accessory
thereto, shall be liable to fines or to detention or imprisonment
for a term not exceeding one year. The same penalty
shall apply to any person who in the realm offends a foreign
State by committing violence against or by threatening or
offensive behaviour towards any representative of that State,
or by intruding into, causing damage to, or soiling any
building or room used by any such representative, or who
is accessory thereto.
There are similar provisions in Sweden and
In Portugal article 332 of the Penal Code,
dating from 1999, provides that
who by words, gesture, in writing or by any other means
of public communication, desecrates the Republic, national
flag or the national anthem the symbols or emblems of the
Portuguese sovereignty, or in any other way fails to pay
them their due respect, shall be punished with a prison
sentence of up to 2 years or with a pecuniary penalty of
up to 240 days.
Turkey has gained attention for the vehemence
of statements by the armed forces about protection of the
national honour and the ineptness of prosecutions of figures
such as writer Orhan Pamuk
(guilty of acknowledging the historicity of massacres of Kurds
and Armenians) or cartoonists who depicted the head of state
as a frog. It is an offence under sections 301 and 305 of
the Penal Code to insult "the Turkish nation", including
denigration of Kemal Atatürk or the president, destruction
of the flag, defacement of Turkish currency or criticism of
the armed forces and police.
The General Staff responded to flag burning by teenage Kurds
in March 2005 with the comment
is traitorous behavior. Everyone should know very well that
neither this country's indivisible integrity nor the
glorious Turkish flag, which is a symbol of that unity and
integrity, will ever be left without their protectors.
The Turkish nation has experienced many betrayals besides
its countless triumphs throughout its history. However,
it has never seen such a vileness by its so-called citizens
in its own territories. Such a desecration against the Turkish
flag by so-called citizens in its country is totally unexplainable
and unjustifiable. It is nothing but treason.
the Turkish flag (although not that of the US) attracts a
sentence of one to three months imprisonment.
In India display of the Indian national flag
is governed by the 1950 Emblems & Names (Prevention
of Improper Use) Act and 1971 Prevention of Insults
to National Honour Act.
The Flag Code encompasses punishment for one who "burns,
mutilates, defaces, defiles disfigures, destroys, tramples
upon or otherwise brings into contempt (whether by words,
either spoken or written, or by acts)" the flag in a
public place or in public view. It also makes it an offence
to show "disrespect" to the flag, including use
of the flag "as a portion of costume or uniform",
on "cushions, handkerchiefs or napkins", as "covering
for a statue" and allowing the flag to "touch the
ground" or "trail in water".
In Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Saudi
Arabia desecration of the national flag is a criminal offence,
typically punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment. There
is less protection for the flags of other states; burning
the flag of the 'Great Satan' (or effigies of the US President
and figures such as the Australian Prime Minister) is a recurrent
media event endorsed - if not organised - by authorities in
several of those countries.
In China "insult" to the national
flag is a criminal offence. Article 299 of the Criminal Code
purposely insults the national flag, national emblem of
the PRC in a public place with such methods as burning,
destroying, scribbling, soiling, and trampling is to be
to be sentenced to not more than three years of fixed-term
imprisonment, criminal detention, control or deprived of
penalty was introduced into the Hong Kong SAR under the 1997
National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance, upheld
by the Hong Kong Court of Appeal in 1999 as "necessary
for national cohesion" after claims that it was contrary
to Article 39 of the Basic Law by restricting rights and freedoms
enjoyed by Hong Kong residents under the International Covenant
on Civil & Political Rights (ICCPR). The Court commented
that restrictions on freedom of speech contained in the Ordinance
were limited and justified by the need to protect other values
that were also worthy of constitutional protection.
Article 160 of the Taiwan Criminal Code prohibits
desecration of the national flag and that of Sun Yat Sen.
Article 118 criminalises desecration of foreign national flags
In Japan there is no law against damaging
the Japanese flag (although vigilantes since the 1960s have
on occasion assassinated protestors who were incautious enough
to deface or destroy the flag).
However there are enactments prohibiting destruction or defacement
of the flags of other nations.