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Closing space for civil society in the UK, UN expert warns

GENEVA (21 April 2016) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, warned today against a series of measures resulting in the “closing of space for civil society in the UK”, at the end of a four-day visit to the country.*

The Special Rapporteur highlighted that the UK takes its role as one of the global leaders in human rights seriously and added that “many people around the world look to the UK as a model for democracy and human rights” and emphasised that “the UK truly should consider its civil society a national treasure.”

He noted a number of his 2013 recommendations had been implemented and commended the Government for its continued willingness to constructively engage on human rights in general and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in particular.

“I am concerned about a series of separate measures by the Government - some implemented and others proposed - which, put together, suggest that the Government has a negative view of civil society. These moves have, in many instances, been subtle and gradual, but they are unmistakable and alarming,” said the expert.

The Government’s focus on countering “non-violent extremism” without a narrow and explicit definition was worrisome, Mr Kiai noted. He specifically referred to the Preventstrategy which focuses on individuals and groups that appear contrary to the “British Values” of democracy, pluralism and tolerance, and who are seen as being predisposed to respond to terrorist ideologies.

“The lack of definitional clarity, combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public,” said the expert. Mr. Kiai referred to the case of families who are 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.

“It appears that Preventis having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population,” Mr Kiai said.

The Special Rapporteur also shared his concerns at the planned Counter-Extremism Bill, which may authorise the issuance of civil orders to ban “non-violent extremist groups”. If defined in vague terms, this could open the door to arbitrary interpretation and tread into the territory of policing thought and opinion, the expert warned.

“It is the duty of the Government – and indeed all States – to do all it can to prevent, limit and mitigate potential terrorist attacks that could arise from extremism. But I believe that the existing legal framework is robust enough to deal with any issues of extremism and related intolerance that could give rise to terrorism,” Mr Kiai said.

The human rights expert also regretted what he termed the chilling effect of the Lobbying Act on the work of charities during election periods, with many opting for silence on issues they work on. The announcement that a clause will be inserted in all Government grant agreements, prohibiting these funds from being used to lobby Government has also caused confusion and uncertainty within the sector, he said.

“It is far from clear what mischief the clause intends to address or what activities are envisioned as constituting ‘influence or attempting to influence government’, but it is clear that this is being read by Charities as an effort to further silence them if they receive Government funds,” said the Special Rapporteur.

Noting that the Trade Union Bill is now in Parliament for review, the human rights expert said he shared many of the concerns highlighted in a report recently released by the International Labour Organization, including the new threshold requirements regarding industrial action by unions in “important public services” and provisions which would allow the replacement of some striking workers.

On a separate note, the Special Rapporteur welcomed the ongoing public enquiry into undercover policing, in line with recommendations he made during his previous visit to the UK in January 2013. 

“Undercover policing certainly serves a vital function in gathering intelligence among criminal groups such as terrorists and violent gangs. However, its use against protest movements, leftist groups, and so on, which exercise their legitimate rights to dissent and freely assemble, is not justifiable,” he said.

“This dark episode in the UK’s history has caused profound damage – to the victims, to people’s comfort with exercising their assembly and association rights, and in many cases for the officers who were called upon to be spies. This damage can partly be remedied by imposing real accountability and transparency for the victims,” he added.

The Special Rapporteur also stressed that “in a number of instances, the police have continued to use force against protestors in an excessive manner”, mentioning allegations that the police continued to resort on several occasions to mass arrests and using stop and search powers in the context of protests, most notably anti-fracking demonstrations, with a view to gathering intelligence on protestors. “I want to underscore the chilling effect of such practices among protestors,” he said.
*Check the end of mission statement: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=19854&LangID=E

Mr. Maina Kiai (Kenya) took up his functions as the first Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in May 2011. The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/AssemblyAssociation/Pages/SRFreedomAssemblyAssociationIndex.aspx

UN Human Rights, Country Page – United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/GBIndex.aspx

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