UN Human Rights Council Criticises “Prevent”
In his report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2017 regarding the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai criticised the “Prevent” strategy as “inherently flawed”.
The report said the policy was “inconsistent with the principle of the rule of law” and appeared to be “having the opposite of its intended effect”. The full text of the relevant parts of the report is given below.
According to a BBC report on 16 June, the Home Office said the report makes “a series of assertions that are simply not true”.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd set out plans to improve and strengthen Prevent in the wake of last month’s Manchester terror attack. She suggested more money would be spent on the strategy to make sure “it has even more effective outcomes in communities to protect us”. She said Prevent had helped stop 150 people – including 50 children – from leaving Britain to fight in Syria in the last year.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It was disappointing to see a report make a series of assertions that are simply not true. Prevent is vital and necessary to stop the threat of terrorism, whether Islamist or Far Right. To say that the strategy creates extremists is an outrageous claim with no evidence.
“Following the tragic events in London and Manchester, it is more important than ever that we focus on the real causes of terrorism, which continues to be vulnerable people being exploited by recruiters spouting the poisonous ideologies of groups such as Daesh.”
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said: “This report is right, Theresa May’s Prevent strategy has become discredited and must now be replaced. As we have seen with recent terrorist attacks, local communities alerted the authorities about suspicious individuals but their warnings were ignored. We need a new approach, working closely with communities to root out extremism and investing in local policing and intelligence-gathering.”
President of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia, said: “We welcome this report as yet another confirmation that the Prevent agenda is seriously flawed and undermines people’s civil liberties. NUS and others have long maintained that the Prevent strategy is not only damaging to those it targets but that it is completely ineffective as a counter-terrorism strategy. Unclear guidelines result in over-zealous and misinformed staff reporting everyone from PhD students studying counter-terrorism to four year old children.”
Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven said: “The Lobbying Act has done nothing to curb the influence of corporate lobbies over our political system, but has frightened charities supported by millions of people into silence. Ministers should listen to the UN and to their own experts and use the Queen’s Speech to repeal or reform this charity-gagging law.”
Prevent, which was set up in 2006 by Labour, is meant to protect individuals thought to be at risk of being radicalised has been criticised for demonising Muslim communities and deterring people from sharing information with police.
Human Rights Council
6-23 June 2017
Agenda item 3: Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development
Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association on his follow-up mission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland*
The following paragraphs in the report deal with the Prevent strategy.
6. One of the biggest concerns brought to the Special Rapporteur’s attention during his mission was the Government’s focus on countering non-violent extremism without a narrow and explicit definition, at the expense of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Many interlocutors identified the Prevent strategy as the epitome of the problem.
7. The Prevent strategy is the second pillar of CONTEST, the State’s counter-terrorism strategy. The first version of CONTEST was published in 2006. Prevent aims to
(a) respond to the ideological challenge [the country] face[s] from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat [it] face[s] from those who promote these views, (b) provide practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure they are given appropriate advice and support; and (c) work with a wide range of sectors (including education, criminal justice, faith, charities, online and health) where there are risks of radicalisation that [the authorities] need to deal with.
Prevent focuses on individuals and groups who “vocal[ly] or active[ly] oppos[e] fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” and who are seen as being predisposed to respond positively to terrorist ideologies.
8. The Special Rapporteur sympathizes with the need to combat the scourge of terrorism in a comprehensive and forceful manner. This is without doubt one of the greatest challenges faced by countries today. However, this should not be done in disregard of fundamental freedoms. During his mission, the feedback he received from civil society on the impact of the Prevent strategy on the enjoyment of these freedoms was overwhelmingly negative. Students, activists and members of faith-based organizations related countless anecdotes of the programme being implemented in a way that translated simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling, with concomitant effects on the right to freedom of association of some groups.
9. For example, the duty imposed on certain categories of public officials, including teachers, to observe, record and report individuals they may consider “extremist” has led to undue restrictions on student union activities and the singling out of students from minority communities. In one instance, a 17-year-old student claimed he was targeted as he expressed his solidarity with the people of the State of Palestine by wearing a Palestine badge and scarf and distributing leaflets on the humanitarian situation there. The student was referred to the authorities under the Prevent strategy, and two police officers subsequently came to his house to question him on his views on Palestine, Israel and the Middle East. The school denied to the media that the boy was referred for wearing the badge, but failed to provide an alternative explanation. In addition, environmentalists, anti-capitalist groups and some Members of Parliament have reportedly been provided as examples of extremists in Prevent trainings.
10. The Special Rapporteur concurs with civil society that the Prevent strategy is inherently flawed. First, the guidance offered to decision makers in schools on how to apply the Prevent duty provides that “specified authorities are expected to assess the risk of children being drawn into terrorism, including support for extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology” and that those authorities “need to demonstrate that they are protecting children and young people from being drawn into terrorism by having robust safeguarding policies in place to identify children at risk, and intervening as appropriate”. The Special Rapporteur believes that such unclear guidelines give excessive discretion to decision makers, which subsequently makes the overall application of Prevent unpredictable and potentially arbitrary, hence rendering it inconsistent with the principle of the rule of law.
11. Second, the guidance lists a set of indicators of vulnerability and risk which are overly broad, including “spending increasing time in the company of other suspected extremists”, “changing [one’s] style of dress or personal appearance to accord with the group”, “communications with others that suggest identification with a group/cause/ideology”, “clearly identifying another group as threatening what they stand for and blaming that group for all social and political ills” and “having occupational skills that can enable acts of terrorism”.
12. Third, in the Special Rapporteur’s view, the Prevent strategy appears to draw a nearly automatic link between extremism and terrorism. However, British law makes a clear distinction between the two. The Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism as the “use or threat of action … designed to influence the government … or to intimidate the public or a section of the public … for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause”. “Extremism”, meanwhile, is vaguely defined in Prevent as “opposition to British values”.
13. These flaws, combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty regarding what can legitimately be discussed in public. For instance, the Special Rapporteur was informed about teachers being reported for innocuous comments in class. The spectre of “Big Brother” is so large, in fact, that some families are reportedly afraid of even discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing that their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued.
14. Overall, it appears that Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it. The Special Rapporteur was disappointed to learn that the Government announced in October 2016, following an internal review, that Prevent should be strengthened. There was reportedly no public consultation during this review, which he considers particularly troubling in the light of the public concerns voiced by several stakeholders. He reiterates the call made by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and several civil society actors for an independent review of the strategy to be completed. Inputs from all relevant stakeholders should be sought in such processes.
 United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Home Office, Prevent Strategy (London, The Stationery Office, 2011). Available from www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf.
 United Kingdom, Home Office, CONTEST: The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism (London, The Stationery Office, 2011). Available from www.gov.uk/government/publications/counter-terrorism-strategy-contest.
 See www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-counter-terrorism/2010-to-2015-government-policy-counter-terrorism.
 See United Kingdom, Home Office, Revised Prevent Duty Guidance: For England and Wales (2015), para. 7. Available from www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445977/3799_Revised_Prevent_Duty_Guidance__England_Wales_V2-Interactive.pdf.
 See Rights Watch (United Kingdom), “Preventing education? Human rights and UK counter-terrorism policy in schools (July 2016), paras. 99-104. Available from http://rwuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/preventing-education-final-to-print-3.compressed-1.pdf.
 Ibid., paras. 15-36.
 See United Kingdom, Home Office, Revised Prevent Duty Guidance, para. 67.
 Ibid., para. 68.
 See United Kingdom, Home Office, Channel Duty Guidance: Protecting Vulnerable People From Being Drawn Into Terrorism (2015), paras. 51-53. Available from www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/425189/Channel_Duty_Guidance_April_2015.pdf.
 See United Kingdom, Terrorism Act 2000, chap. 11, sects. 1-4 (2000).
 United Kingdom, House of Lords Hansard, Prevent Strategy, vol. 776, 26 October 2016. Available from https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2016-10-26/debates/D21E35A2-D38C-4D46-9201-A9FE5643FF2D/PreventStrategy.
 David Anderson, “Independent reviewer of terrorism legislation”, oral evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Q23, in HC 836, “Counter-terrorism and human rights”, 26 November 2014.
 United Kingdom, Parliament, Joint Committee on Human Rights, “Government should consider extremist strategy”, 22 July 2016. Available from www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/human-rights-committee/news-parliament-2015/counter-extremism-report-published-16-17/.
 See CRC/C/GBR/CO/5, para. 22 (b).
The full text of the report can be found here.