Flag desecration

"Flag burning" redirects here. For burning of flags as a method of disposal, see Flag protocol.
United States flag being burned in protest on the eve of the 2008 election

Flag desecration is a term applied to the desecration of flags or flag protocol, a various set of acts that intentionally destroy, damage or mutilate a flag in public. Often, in case of a national flag, such action is intended to make a political point against a country or its policies. Some countries have laws forbidding methods of destruction (such as burning in public) or forbidding particular uses (such as for commercial purposes); such laws may distinguish between desecration of the country's own national flag and flags of other countries.


Actions that may be treated as flag desecration include burning it,[1] urinating or defecating on it, defacing it with slogans,[1] stepping upon it, damaging it with stones or guns, cutting or ripping it,[1] verbally insulting it, or dragging it on the ground.

Flag desecration may be undertaken for a variety of reasons. It may be a protest against a country's foreign policy, including one's own, or the nature of the government in power there. It may be a protest against nationalism, or a deliberate and symbolic insult to the people of the country represented by the flag. It may also be a protest at the very laws prohibiting the act of desecrating a flag.

Burning or defacing a flag is a crime in some countries. In countries where it is not, the act may still be prosecuted as disorderly conduct, arson or theft if conducted against someone else's property.

Using a flag unconventionally, such as hanging it upside down or reversed, may be regarded as desecration,[1] and flying a flag at half-mast is considered desecration in Saudi Arabia.[2] In some countries, however, flying a flag upside-down is conventional protocol to indicate an emergency or problem, or to indicate a state of war. Moreover, some flags (such as the flag of Austria) when hung upside down and/or reversed look the same because they are vertically and/or horizontally symmetrical.

Some countries regard it as desecration to make toilet paper, napkins, doormats, and other such items bearing the image of the flag, so that the flag's image will be destroyed or soiled. It is, however, increasingly common in some countries to see clothing with the image of the flag forming a substantial part of the piece. Views vary as to whether some of this is an act of national pride or disrespect.

By country


In Algeria, flag desecration is a crime. According to article 160bis of the Algerian penal code, the intentional and public shredding, distortion, or desecration of the national flag is punishable by 5 to 10 years of imprisonment.

In 2010, an Algerian court convicted 17 people of flag desecration and punished them by up to 6 years of imprisonment and 10,000 dollars in fines after protests about jobs and housing.


The Penal Code (Código Penal) on its Article 222 criminalizes the public desecration of the national flag, coat of arms, national anthem, or any provincial symbol, imposing from 1 to 4 years of imprisonment.[3]


Main article: Flag of Australia


Flag desecration is not, by itself, illegal in Australia.[4] However, flag desecration must otherwise be compliant with the law.

In Coleman v Kinbacher & Anor (Qld Police),[5] Coleman was successfully prosecuted for flag burning, not because of its political nature, but because given the size of the flag, the use of petrol as an accelerant and the fact that it was in an open park area, many members of the public experienced "concern, fright and anger", and in these circumstances flag burning could be considered disorderly conduct.

Attempts to ban flag burning

There have been several attempts to pass bills making flag burning illegal in Australia, none of which have yet been successful. As of May 2016, the most recent bill which attempted to ban flag burning was the Flags Amendment (Protecting Australian Flags) Bill 2016, which was introduced by National Party MP George Christensen and is not proceeding.[6]

Historical occurrences

During the 2005 Cronulla riots, a Lebanese-Australian youth, whose name has been kept secret, climbed an RSL club building and tore down its flag before setting it on fire. The youth was sentenced to 12 months probation not for flag desecration but for the destruction of property of the RSL.[7] In October of that year the youth accepted an invitation from the RSL to carry the Australian flag along with war veterans in the Anzac Day march the following year.[8] However, the RSL was forced to withdraw this invitation as it received phone calls from people threatening to pelt the youth with missiles on the day.[9] The head of the New South Wales RSL was quoted as saying that "the people who made these threats ought to be bloody ashamed of themselves".[8]

In 2006, Australian contemporary artist Azlan McLennan burnt an Australian flag and displayed it on a billboard outside the Trocadero artspace in Footscray, Victoria. He called the artpiece Proudly UnAustralian.[10]

The socialist youth group Resistance marketed "flag-burning kits"—inspired by, and to protest, the censorship of Azlan McLennan's art—to university students.[11]

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre worker Adam Thompson burned the Australian flag on the week of Australia Day (2008) celebrations in Launceston's City Park to the cheers of about 100 people, who were rallying against what they call "Invasion Day".[12]

Tent embassy activists burned the Australian flag on 27 January 2012 at the entrance to Canberra's Parliament House as they called for Aboriginal sovereignty over Australia.[13]


In Austria flag desecration is illegal under §248 Strafgesetzbuch.[14] Offenders can be fined or punished with up to 6 months of imprisonment. Under §317 Strafgesetzbuch desecration of flags of foreign states or international organizations can be punished if Austria maintains diplomatic relations with them or belongs to the respective organization.[15] Keina Farrington and Alex Mendoza were famously arrested in Austria for defacing the country's flag.

As former part of Nazi Germany, use of the Nazi flag in Austria today is illegal (see section Germany – Nazi flag below).


Brazilian law number 5700,[16] from 1971, article 31, point out the forms of disrespect as the following:

Also, in the article 30, caput, it is stated that, when in march or parade, such at the execution of National Anthem, all people must take a respectful attitude, standing and in silence, with the male civilians without any head cover and the military personnel in the salute or present arms stance, following each corporation internal regulations.

Article 32 says that the flags in bad condition must be sent to the nearest military unit, for incineration in the Flag's Day, following the ceremonial procedures.

Article 33 rules that may not be any foreign flag in its right side, in same size and in a highlight position over the Brazilian flag, when inside Brazilian territory, except when at diplomatic missions, such as embassies and consulates.

According to this same law's article 35, the act of a civilian breaking this law is considered a misdemeanor, punished with a fine of one to four times the highest reference value active in the Country, and doubled in repeated infringement cases; in the Brazilian Armed Forces' Military Penal Code,[17] article 161, the soldier, airman or seaman that disrespect any national symbol is punished with one to two years of detention, and the officer may be declared incompatible with the officership.


Flag desecration is not forbidden by Belgian law. Flemish nationalists have burned Belgian flags on at least one occasion.[18]


Main article: Flag of Canada

Canada has no laws prohibiting flag desecration. Acts of this nature are forms of expression protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In 1990, during heated political times around the Meech Lake Accord, the flag of Quebec was desecrated by protestors in Brockville, Ontario opposed to Quebec's language laws after the Canadian flag had been burnt in protests in Quebec. Televised images of individuals stepping on the Quebec flag were played in Quebec and contributed to the deterioration in relations between Quebec and English Canada. The incident, seen as a metaphor of Canada's perceived rejection of Quebec (and of Quebec's distinctiveness in the demise of the Meech Lake Accord) was invoked by Quebec nationalists during the run-up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence and is still remembered today.

In 1999, members of the Westboro Baptist Church from the United States staged a burning of the Canadian Flag outside of the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. This was to protest legalization of same-sex marriage which was being adjudicated by the Canadian court.


Flag desecration is prohibited in China. The penal code[19] provides for an imprisonment up to three years, criminal detention, public surveillance, or deprivation of political rights for anyone who "desecrate[s] the National Flag (Wǔ Xīng Hóngqí) or the National Emblem of the People's Republic of China by intentionally burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling upon it in public".


Croatian history recalls the burning of the flag of the Kingdom of Hungary during the 1895 visit of Emperor Franz Joseph to Zagreb. Two people involved in the incident, Stjepan Radić and Vladimir Vidrić, later pursued notable careers in politics and literature, respectively. In modern Croatia it is illegal to desecrate any flag or to treat any flag in a disrespectful manner. Offenders are punished with up to one year of imprisonment.[20]


In Denmark, it is legal to burn and desecrate the national flag, the Dannebrog.[21][22] It is illegal to publicly burn and desecrate the flags of foreign countries, the United Nations and Council of Europe according to section 110(e) of the Danish penal code[22][23] because Parliament has decided that burning or desecrating these is a matter of foreign relations,[21] as it could be construed as a threat. This law is rarely used; the last conviction was in 1936.[21]

According to Danish tradition, burning is the proper way to dispose of a worn Dannebrog flag.[24] According to tradition, care must be observed to ensure that a flag never touches the ground, i.e., even when being disposed of, it should be placed on top of a fire. Flying the flag after sundown is also inappropriate behaviour.[25]

Faroe Islands

According to the Faroese flag law the Faroese flag, Merkið, may not be desecrated, "neither by words or by deeds".[26]


According to the law on the Finnish flag,[27] it is illegal to desecrate the flag, treat it in disrespecting manner or remove it from a public place without permission.


According to French law,[28] outraging the French national anthem or the French flag during an event organized or regulated by public authorities is liable for a fine of €7,500 (and six months' imprisonment if performed in a gathering). The law targets "outrageous behaviour" during public ceremonies and major sports events.

This clause was added as an amendment to a large bill dealing with internal security, in reaction to a football match during which there had been whistles against La Marseillaise, but also to similar actions during public ceremonies.[29] The amendment initially prohibited such behaviour regardless of the context, but a parliamentary commission later restricted its scope to events organized or regulated by public authorities,[30]—which is to be understood, according to the ruling of the Constitutional Council as events organized by public authorities, mass sport matches and other mass events taking place in enclosures, but not private speech, literary or artistic works, or speech during events not organized or regulated by public authorities.[31]

In 2006, a man who had publicly burnt a French flag stolen from the façade of the city hall of Aurillac during a public festival, organized and regulated by public authorities, was sentenced to a €300 fine.[32]

A July 2010 law makes it a crime to desecrate the French national flag in a public place, but also to distribute images of a flag desecration, even when done in a private setting.[33] On 22 December 2010, an Algerian national was the first person to be convicted under the new status, and ordered to pay a €750 after breaking the pole of a flag hung in the Alpes-Maritimes prefecture a day prior.[34]


German flags being burned during a protest in Nuremberg, 2006.

Under German criminal code (§90a Strafgesetzbuch (StGB)) it is illegal to revile or damage the German federal flag as well as any flags of its states in public. Offenders can be fined or sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison, or fined/sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison if the act was intentionally used to support the eradication of the Federal Republic of Germany or to violate constitutional rights. Actual convictions because of a violation of the criminal code need to be balanced against the constitutional right of the freedom of expression, as ruled multiple times by Germany's constitutional court.[35]

As for flags of foreign countries, it is illegal to damage or revile them, if they are shown publicly by tradition, event or routinely by representatives of the foreign entity (§104 StGB). On the other hand, it is not illegal to desecrate such flags that serve no official purpose (especially any provided by the perpetrator).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, many East Germans cut out the emblem from their national flag in support for a reunified, democratic Germany. This flag is now used by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship.[36][37]

During the 2006 World Cup, the anti-German German musician Torsun (half of the group Egotronic) recorded a techno cover of the song "Ten German Bombers". The song and its accompanying YouTube video (featuring footage of German planes being shot down, the Wembley goal, a burning German flag, etc.) attracted media attention in Germany, as well as from the British tabloid News of the World. The song was eventually included in the World Cup themed compilation Weltmeister Hits 2006.[38][39][40]

Nazi flag

On 19 December 1932, Weimar Republic Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg made desecration of the German flag illegal by signing into law §134a StGB[41] by presidential decree. Initially, this law applied to the black-red-gold flag of democratic Germany.

On 26 July 1935 in New York a group of demonstrators boarded the SS Bremen, tore the Nazi party flag from the jackstaff and threw it into the Hudson River. The German ambassador sharply protested, but the protest was rejected, with the judgement that only a party symbol was harmed and the national flag was not affected. On 15 September 1935, in response to this incident, the Reichsflaggengesetz (Reichs flag law) (RGBl. I S. 1145) came into effect, declaring the Nazi flag to be the exclusive national flag of Germany and removing the status of the black-white-red tricolor flag of the German Empire as co-national flag.

In January 1941, the Flag of Nazi Germany flying from the German consulate in San Francisco was slashed and torn down by two United States Navy sailors. They were arrested, tried and convicted of malicious mischief.[42] The German government protested the incident and the United States Department of State expressed their regrets.[43] Later that year, after Germany declared war on the United States, one of the sailors, Harold Sturtevant, who had been dismissed because of the incident, reenlisted in the Navy.[44]

Today Nazism and Nazi symbols is forbidden in Germany and Austria and, according to the German criminal code Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, the public use or dissemination of Nazi symbols including the flag is illegal in Germany. Similar laws exist in Austria (Verbotsgesetz 1947,[45] Abzeichengesetz 1960[46]).

Hong Kong

The Chinese law about flag desecration were incorporated into Hong Kong law as the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance in 1997 as required by Annex III of the territory's constitution. The Regional Flag and Regional Emblem Ordinance is the equivalent statute in respect of the Hong Kong flag. Both ordinances ban desecration of the Chinese flag and Hong Kong flag, respectively.

In 1999, two individuals were convicted for desecration of the Regional Flag of Hong Kong and the Chinese flag. They were found guilty by a magistrate, had the conviction overturned in the High Court[47] but the convictions were restored by the Court of Final Appeal.[48]

They were bound over to keep the peace on their own recognisance of $2,000 for 12 months for each of the two charges.

In the judgement, Chief Justice Andrew Li said although the Basic Law of Hong Kong guarantees freedom of speech, flag desecration is not legal because there are other protest methods.

Social activist Koo Sze-yiu has been convicted twice of flag desecration. He was sentenced to a nine-month prison term in 2013 for the offence.[49] However, the sentence was reduced to four months and two weeks after an appeal. In March 2016 he was sentenced to a six-week prison term for burning the regional flag in Wanchai on HKSAR Establishment Day in 2015. Koo responded that "he is happy to be punished as being jailed is part of the life of an activist, and he would continue to protest against the Beijing and Hong Kong governments and fight for democracy."[49]


1956 Revolution Flag flying in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building

During a demonstration at the beginning of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 someone in the crowd cut out the communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, leaving a distinctive hole and others quickly followed suit. The "flag with a hole" became a symbol of the Hungarian resistance.[50][51]


Main article: Flag of India

The Indian Flag Code is a set of laws that govern the usage of the Flag of India. The Bureau of Indian Standards is in charge of the enforcement of the manufacture of the flag according to the guidelines.

Violation of the code may invite severe punishments and penalties. The code was written in 2002 and merged the following acts: provisions of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950 (No.12 of 1950) and the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 (No. 69 of 1971).

The Indian Flag Code was often criticized for being too rigid and prevented ordinary citizens from displaying the flag on homes and other buildings. For many years, only government officials and other government buildings could unfurl the flag. That changed in 2001 when Naveen Jindal won a court case in the Supreme Court of India to give Indians the right to unfurl the flag publicly. The Indian cricket batsman Sachin Tendulkar was accused of sporting the flag on his cricket helmet below the BCCI emblem. He later changed it and placed the flag above BCCI emblem. The flag code was updated in 2005; some new provisions include that the flag cannot be worn under the waist or on undergarments.[52]


In 2004, many copies of the proposed new flag for Iraq were burnt (see Flag of Iraq). There were no such examples of burning the current Iraqi national flags, even by political opponents, as both contain the words Allahu Akbar (God is great), so this would be seen as a religious insult.


The Department of the Taoiseach's guide to the flag of Ireland includes a list of "practices to avoid".[53] This states in part "The National Flag should never be defaced by placing slogans, logos, lettering or pictures of any kind on it, for example at sporting events."[53] A tricolour inscribed "Davy Keogh says hello" waved continually since 1981 has given its eponymous bearer a modicum of fame among Republic of Ireland soccer supporters.[54][55][56] Guinness ran a promotion before the 2002 FIFA World Cup distributing Irish flags to supporters in pubs, on which the tricolour's white band was defaced with Guinness's harp logo.[57] Guinness apologised after public criticism.[57] Cecilia Keaveney said in a subsequent Dáil debate, "It may not be possible to address defacing the flag through legislation, but the House must issue a strong message that this is unacceptable."[58]

Seán O'Casey's 1926 play The Plough and the Stars attracted controversy for its critical view of the Easter Rising, in particular a scene in which a tricolour is brought into a pub frequented by a prostitute.[59] On 7 May 1945, the day before V-E Day, celebrating unionist students in Trinity College Dublin raised the flags of the victorious Allies over the college; when onlookers in College Green began jeering, some took down the flag of neutral Ireland, set fire to it and tossed it away, provoking a small riot.[60][61] In response, nationalist students from University College Dublin, including future Taoiseach Charles Haughey, burned the British flag in Grafton Street.[60] The Provost of Trinity College apologised for the incident, which was not reported in Irish newspapers owing to wartime censorship.[60]


A non-standard Flag of Israel being burned by the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta sect.

In 2007 six teenagers in the South Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam were arrested for burning an Israeli flag. This incident was considered serious by the police and others since the youths were suspected in other acts of vandalism and claimed to be Satanists.[62]

In 2016, Israel passed an amendment, meaning those convicted of burning an Israeli flag, or the flag of allied countries, face up to three years in prison.[63]


In Italy, desecration of any Italian or foreign nation's national flag (vilipendio alla bandiera) is prohibited by law (Article 292 of the Italian Penal Code) and punished with fines (between 1,000 and 10,000 euros) for verbal desecration and with reclusion (up to two years) for physical damage or destruction.[64]


In Japan, under Chapter 4, Article 92 of the Criminal Code, any desecration of a recognized foreign nation's national flag and symbol to dishonour that particular nation is prohibited and punishable by fine or penal labour, but only on complaint by the foreign government.

In May 1958, the flag of the People's Republic of China, the Wǔ Xīng Hóngqí, at a postage stamp convention was pulled down and damaged, but as Japan did not recognize the PRC at the time, the law was not applied. In February 2011, Japanese ultra-rightists held a protest over the Kuril islands dispute outside of the Russian embassy in Tokyo, during which they dragged a Russian flag on the ground; Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated that his ministry had asked the Japanese government to launch a criminal case over the incident.[65]

However, there has never been a law explicitly prohibiting desecration of the Japanese flag, the Hinomaru. Absent such law, the act of desecration is implicitly protected by Article 21 covering freedom of speech in the Constitution of Japan.

On 26 October 1987, an Okinawan supermarket owner burned the Hinomaru, before the start of the National Sports Festival of Japan.[66] The flag burner, Shōichi Chibana, burned the national flag not only to show opposition to atrocities committed by the Japanese army and the continued presence of U.S. forces, but also to prevent it from being displayed in public.[67] Other incidents in Okinawa included the flag being torn down during school ceremonies and students refusing to honor the flag as it was being raised to the sounds of Kimigayo.[68]


Nine Australian men, the 'Budgie Nine', were arrested after celebrating the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix by stripping to their 'budgie smuggler' swimming trunks, decorated with the Malaysian flag.[69] After three days in custody they were charged with public nuisance and released. The briefs had been made in Australia, rather than Malaysia.[70]


The use of the National Symbols (Coat of Arms, Anthem and National Flag) in Mexico is protected by law.[71] In México the desecration of the flag is illegal. Although punishment is not sought often and are usually not harsh, there are a few instances; for example, in 2008 a federal judge convicted an individual for 'desecrating the flag' in a poem. The ministry that oversees the use of national symbols requested four years in jail, but the judge only issued a small fine and a public warning.[72]

New Zealand

In New Zealand, under the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 it is illegal to destroy the New Zealand flag with the intent of dishonouring it. In 2003, Paul Hopkinson, a Wellington schoolteacher, burned the Flag of New Zealand as part of a protest in Parliament grounds at the New Zealand Government's hosting of the Prime Minister of Australia, against the background of Australia's support of the United States in its war in Iraq. Hopkinson was initially convicted under Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act 1981 of destroying a New Zealand flag with intent to dishonour it, but appealed against his conviction. On appeal, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that the law had to be read consistently with the right to freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights. This meant that his actions were not unlawful because the word dishonour in the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act had many shades of meaning, and when the least restrictive meaning of that word was adopted Hopkinson's actions did not meet that standard. This somewhat unusual result was due in part to the fact that the Bill of Rights does not overrule other laws (Hopkinson v Police).

In 2011 the New Zealand Supreme Court ruled that burning the flag at an ANZAC day dawn service was not offensive behaviour.[73]


Desecration of foreign countries' flags or national coats of arms was previously banned according to the General Civil Penal Code §95. The ban had however rarely been practiced, and was eventually lifted in 2008.

Comedian Otto Jespersen burned a US flag during a satirical TV show in 2003. During the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, Norwegian flags were burned in demonstrations in various Muslim countries.


Pakistan's flag comes under the strict protection of various constitutional clauses. However, the statutes governing the topic consist only of Pakistan Flag Protocols and are unclear as with regards to legal status of the offender and the punishment under the Pakistan Penal Code.

Except for a few occasions during 1971 Liberation War between then East and West Pakistan. The Bengali Separatists (Muktibahini) and their associated groups burned several flags as well as the flags of the armed forces of Pakistan. No incident of National Flag burning has been witnessed.


On 9 January 1964 a discussion broke out between Panamanian students and Americans living in the Panama Canal Zone over the right of the flag of Panama to be raised next to the flag of the United States, as the Canal Zone was then a disputed territory between the two nations. During the scuffle a Panamanian flag carried by Panamanian students was torn. This sparked four days of riots that ended with 22 Panamanians and four Americans dead and with Panama breaking diplomatic relations with the United States. This event is considered very important in the decision to negotiate and sign the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, by whose terms the Panama Canal administration was handed over to the Panamanian Government on 31 December 1999. 9 January is known as Martyrs' Day and is commemorated in Panama as a day of mourning.


The precise law in Peru is unclear, but such acts are clearly capable of causing outrage. In 2008 the dancer, model and actress Leysi Suárez appeared naked photographed using Peru's flag as a saddle while mounted on a horse. The country's defence minister said she would face charges that could put her in jail for up to four years for offending patriotic symbols".[74][75] However the case was closed in 2010.[76]


Section 34a the Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines declares that it is a prohibited act "[t]o mutilate, deface, defile, trample on or cast contempt or commit any act or omission casting dishonor or ridicule upon the flag or over its surface;[77]"

Section 50 Any person or judicial entity which violates any of the provisions of this Act shall, upon conviction, be punished by a fine of not less than Five thousand pesos (5,000.00) not more than Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00), or by imprisonment for not more than one (1) year, or both such fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the court: Provided, That for any second and additional offenses, both fine and imprisonment shall always be imposed: Provided, That in case the violation is committed by a juridical person, its President or Chief Executive Officer thereof shall be liable.[77]"


Currently, according to article 332 of the Penal Code,[78] "Who publicly, by means of words, gestures or print publication, or by other means of public communication, insults the Republic, the Flag or the National Anthem, the coats of arms or the symbols of Portuguese sovereignty, or fails to show the respect they are entitled to, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 240 days". In the case of the regional symbols, the person shall be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 120 days (fines are calculated based on the defendant's income).

The Portuguese Penal Code (article 323) also forbids the desecration of foreign symbols: "Who publicly, by means of words, gestures or print publication, or by other means of public communication, insults the official flag or other symbol of sovereignty of a foreign State or of an international organization of which Portugal is a member shall be punished with up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 120 days." This article applies under two conditions (article 324): that Portugal maintains diplomatic relations with the insulted country, and that there is reciprocity (i.e., that the insulted country would also punish any insult against Portuguese symbols of sovereignty, should they occur there).

On 5 October 2012, Cavaco Silva, then-President of the Republic, during the celebration of the 102 years of the Portuguese Republic, mistakenly flew the national flag upside down, which generated much controversy, with the Portuguese people regarding it as a "joke" and as a sign of disrespect.


The Romanian Penal Code[79] no longer prohibits flag desecration (as it was the case with the previous penal code[80]). Several laws attempting to reinstate punishments for manifestations which express contempt for the Romanian symbols (according to the constitution, these are the flag, national day, anthem and coat-of-arms) have not been approved. [81] [82]

During the Romanian Revolution, the Communist era flag was flown with a hole on the coat of arms.

Saudi Arabia

The flag of Saudi Arabia bears the shahada or Islamic declaration of faith. Because the shahada is considered holy, Saudi Arabia's flag code is extremely strict and even the slightest violation amounts to desecration not only of the flag but is also blasphemous to Islam. This has led to several incidents of controversy. In 1994, McDonald's printed carry-out bags bearing the flags of all nations participating in the FIFA World Cup (with a green flag with Saudi Arabia's coat of arms superimposed, rather than the Saudi flag), while Coca-Cola did the same on cans of soda. Because of Saudi outrage, the companies stopped producing those items.[83] Also during the FIFA World Cup, in 2002, Saudi officials protested against printing the flag on a soccer ball on the belief that kicking the creed with the foot was totally unacceptable.

Soviet Union

The flag of the Soviet Union has been burned many times by protestors against its government's policies, for instance in Brazil by those protesting the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia of 1968,[84] and in New York City in 1985 by protesters against the Soviet War in Afghanistan.[85]


In Serbia, flag desecration is illegal and on 20 May 2009 secretary general of the International Workers' Association Ratibor Trivunac was arrested and punished with 10 days in prison for burning an American flag during the visit of the US Vice President Joe Biden. Due to the mass demonstrations and protests, he was freed from prison two days later.


The desecration of national symbols is not specifically criminal, but flag desecration is prosecuted under the more general clauses against disorderly conduct.


Destruction, removal or desecration of national emblems installed by a public authority (i.e., the Swiss flag, the Swiss coat of arms, the cantonal or municipal flags and coats of arms) is punishable by a monetary penalty or imprisonment of up to three years according to the Swiss federal penal code.[86] The destruction or desecration of privately owned flags or coats of arms is legal.


The flag of Turkey bears the star and crescent over a red field that represents the blood of martyrs which is considered sacred. Under the 1983 Turkish flag law, burning the flag is strictly forbidden, punishable by a prison sentence of three years. Displaying or pulling a torn or discolored flag to flagpole is also illegal. Taking down the flag is prohibited and punishable by a prison sentence of eighteen years.

United Kingdom

Ulster loyalists prepare to burn the Irish tricolour on a bonfire on the eve of The Twelfth in Belfast

Neither the law of England and Wales nor the law of Scotland has a concept of "flag desecration."

In May 1998, in a protest by 2000 ex-PoWs, a Burma Railway veteran torched the Rising Sun banner before both Emperor Akihito and Queen Elizabeth. Police were moved by the crowd not to arrest him.[87] A year later, two "committed socialists" threw a burning Union flag in the direction of the Queen's motor vehicle. They were arrested for breach of the peace, subsequently pleaded guilty and were fined a total £450.[88] In 2001 at RAF Feltwell, home of United States Air Force's 5th Space Surveillance Squadron, a protester defaced the US Flag with the words "Stop Star Wars" before stepping in front of a vehicle and stamping on the flag. Her conviction under S5 Public Order Act 1986, was overturned as incompatible with article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.[89]

In 2011, a republican group of c. 20/30 students at King's College, Cambridge influenced the burning of a large Union flag, the centrepiece of the Student Union's decorations to celebrate the royal wedding. King's College Student Union condemned the action as a "needlessly divisive and violent way to make a political point...[the] Union flag is a symbol and therefore can mean different things to different people in different contexts".[90]

In 2006, to allow greater police control over extremist protesters, 17 MPs signed a House of Commons motion calling for burning of the Union Flag to be made a criminal offence.[91]

Northern Ireland

Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the law in Northern Ireland has varied since its foundation in 1921. The Union Flag of the United Kingdom, the former Flag of Northern Ireland, and the tricolour of the Republic of Ireland are often defaced or burnt in Northern Ireland as a political provocation or as a protest.

British military colours

The Queen's Colours and Regimental Colours are a very important symbol for a British Army regiment and for many regiments in the Commonwealth which have inherited the British Army's traditions. In a Line Regiment the Colour stand consists of these two flags, and damage to such a symbol would be a considered a great insult to the regiment by its members.

In the British armed forces, it is usual for flag-bearers to lower flags and standards, even Queen's and Regimental Colours, so that they are draped on the ground, as part of a Royal Salute or during the two-minute silence on Remembrance Sunday. This mark of respect, known as vailing, is not considered to be a desecration of the colours.

United States

A protester burning a New Hampshire state flag.

The flag of the United States is sometimes symbolically burned, often in protest of the policies of the American government, both within the country and abroad. The United States Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), and reaffirmed in U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990), has ruled that due to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, it is unconstitutional for a government (whether federal, state, or municipality) to prohibit the desecration of a flag, due to its status as "symbolic speech." However, content-neutral restrictions may still be imposed to regulate the time, place, and manner of such expression. And if the flag that was burned was someone else's property (as it was in the Johnson case, as Johnson had stolen the flag from a Texas bank's flagpole), they could be charged with petty larceny (a flag usually sells at retail for less than USD 20), or with destruction of private property, or possibly both.

There have been several proposed Flag Desecration Amendments to the Constitution of the United States which would allow Congress to enact laws to prohibit flag desecration:[92]

In 1862, during the Union army's occupation of New Orleans in the American Civil War, the military governor, Benjamin Franklin Butler, sentenced William B. Mumford to death for removing a United States Flag.

In 1864 John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem Barbara Frietchie, which told of a (probably fictional) incident in which Confederate soldiers were deterred from defacing an American flag. The poem contains the famous lines:

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.

During the United States involvement in the Vietnam War American flags were sometimes burned during war protest demonstrations.[93]

After the Johnson decision, the Flag Protection Act was passed protecting flags from anyone who "mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag".[94] This decision was later struck down in the Eichman decision. After that case, several flag burning amendments to the Constitution were proposed. On 22 June 2005, a Flag Desecration Amendment was passed by the House with the needed two-thirds majority. On 27 June 2006, another attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states.[95]

Flag burning

In common usage, the phrase 'flag burning' refers only to burning a flag as an act of protest. However the United States Flag Code states that "the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display (for example, the flag being faded or torn), should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning".[96]

Petition from People for the American Way Opposed to the Flag Burning Constitutional Amendment, National Archives 26283955

Flying an American flag upside down

Flying an American flag upside down is not necessarily meant as political protest. The practice has its origin in a distress signal; displaying a flag in this manner is "a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property";[97] it has been used by extension to make a statement about distress in civic, political, or other areas. On 13 April 1996 episode of Saturday Night Live, musical guests Rage Against the Machine made a statement about the host, billionaire Steve Forbes, by hanging two upside-down American flags from their amplifiers.

Confederate flag

The Battle Flag of the North Virginian Army, commonly referred to as the Confederate flag, has sometimes been burned in protest as well. In 2000, protesters from the Jewish Defense League burned Confederate and Nazi flags to protest an arson attempt against a Reno, Nevada synagogue. This was criticized by a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, who said that it was more effective to work with the police and other authorities rather than to engage in "tactics which inflame and exacerbate situations."[98]

The Virginian battle flag is given the same protection from burning and desecration as the U.S. flag in five U.S. states: Florida,[99] Georgia,[100] Louisiana,[101] Mississippi,[102] South Carolina.[103]


In eastern Ukraine as a symbol of protest the Ukrainian flag is burnt often.


Since the demonstrations against the refusal by the government to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV (a major TV network), the upside-down flag of Venezuela has been adopted as a symbol of protest for this and other alleged threats to civil liberties. Demonstrators claim that it is a sign of distress and a call for help. However, government and ruling-party officials insist that these demonstrators are desecrating the flag, manipulated by the enemies of the people. An official video sharply criticizing this practice as disrespectful and traitorous was produced.[104] Globovisión prepended to the video a statement denouncing the message as violative of the Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television, "for constituting anonymous official propaganda".


Desecretion of the national flags is forbidden, and desecration of the national flag by an Uuguayan citizen is regarded as mischief of loyatlty; improper manipulation or adulteration of national symbols is prohibited.

Article 28 law N° 9.943 of July 20 1940 and reglamentary decrees of December 19 of that year and May 26, June 10 and 1 July 1943 say ″Every citizen, legal or natural, is obligated to swear a loyal oath at the National Flag, by means of public and solemn act.″

The Oath to the flag has to be taken by citizens at least once in life, the formal act is given on special celebration at a 19 June at every educational institute, defection contrives plenty granting of citizenship rights.

Damaged national flags are burnt by the Uruguayan army every 24 September.

United Nations

In 2006 a United Nations flag was burned during a political campaign in Austin, Texas, USA in protest against United Nations policy. The other candidate later claimed that it was an American flag that was burned.[105] In 2009 a UN flag was dragged on the ground to show disrespect in a Tea Party protest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.[106]


  1. ^ "Richard the Lionheart", by J. Gillingham, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1978, p. 176.
  2. ^ "The RUC: A Force Under Fire", by Chris Ryder, London: Mandarin, 1992, p. 82
  3. ^ BBC: A motion calling for the Union Flag to be flown on Parliament Buildings every day the Northern Ireland Assembly meets has been defeated 6 June 2000


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