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Protecting civic space and the right to peaceful protest in the UK

1 May 2021 Protecting civic space and the right to peaceful protest in the UK

Saferworld joins human rights organisations and campaigners in urging the UK government to review its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently delayed in Parliament after tireless campaigning by civil society organisations and movements. Women’s and minority rights’ activists as well as civil rights groups have raised multiple concerns with the Bill. This includes the implications for civil liberties and survivors of gender-based violence, and the risk of further marginalisation of Gypsy, Romani and Traveller communities and rough sleepers.

Saferworld has worked for many years with civil society in countries other than the UK on issues of community policing, highlighting the contradictions of securitised approaches that can obscure and misrepresent societal concerns of inequality, unemployment and marginalisation. In the past year, together with our partners, we have also advocated to protect civic space against governments that have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to curb freedoms and limit the role of civil society. As a UK-headquartered NGO operating mainly in countries in East Africa and Asia, and as part of an aid system historically rooted in colonialism, we also acknowledge the legacies of British colonial policing across the globe, and how it has shaped the post-independence security and justice systems of many countries, as well as those in the UK.

We therefore share concerns expressed that the proposed Bill - by giving even more power to the police to decide where, when and how people can protest peacefully and increasing penalties for those breaching police conditions on protests – will limit the space for citizens to hold authorities to account and bring crucial social issues to public attention.

This Bill comes after the government has in recent years increased surveillance of social justice activists and used securitised policing approaches at various protests, including on climate change and Black Lives Matter, which have seen thousands of young people and adults come out onto the streets all over the UK to participate.  More recently, we saw it at the vigil held in memory of Sarah Everard, after a police officer was arrested on suspicion of her murder.

This is not a unique development, but a global trend of governments increasingly securitising public space and citizen participation. In the last year, Saferworld and some of its partners have raised concerns about governments - from Kenya to Kyrgyzstan to Nepal - using COVID-19 social distancing measures and other restrictions as a tool to crackdown on social movements and quash dissent, including women’s rallies, and of security agencies adopting heavy-handed and repressive tactics. In the UK, police have been criticised for the heavy-handed and discriminatory manner in which lockdown regulations have been imposed in the policing of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests highlighting violence against women.

Saferworld has already pointed to the need to strengthen policy coherence around the UK’s Integrated Review (IR) on security, foreign policy, and defence. This is yet another example of incoherence: despite the IR's aim to defend and promote human rights and civic space through aid and foreign policy abroad, it seems that the reverse is applicable at home, where civic freedoms and human rights would be clearly threatened if the Bill were to pass.

Not all are equal: the policing experience in the UK

The effects of the Bill will also most likely be felt by communities that are historically over-policed in the UK (Gypsy, Romani and Traveller communities, black and other racialised communities). Twenty-two years after the Macpherson Report, there are still unresolved issues of institutional racism within the police. Young black men are far more likely to be stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police, and twice as likely to die in custody. The policing of BLM demonstrations and protests against the Bill show that black activists and movements are already more likely to face excessive use of force and disproportionate targeting.

The Bill also neglects concerns that the current policing and justice system fails women and girls that experience gender-based violence – and can itself be a threat to women’s safety: a 2021 report found 594 complaints of sexual violence against Met police employees between 2012 and 2018, of which only 119 were upheld. Evidence from charity Women in Prison shows that Black, Asian and minority ethnic women are more likely to be over-policed, criminalised and receive disproportionately harsher treatment such as the likelihood of a prison sentence if this Bill passes – and that many of these women will themselves be survivors of gender-based violence. Current policies do little to seriously address violence against women and girls, while the Bill threatens the ability to express dissent about the issue by undermining the right to protest.

Our experience on security and conflict prevention shows that the formula more policing leads to more security is not substantiated by any evidence. Groups and communities that are most insecure (economically, socially and physically) are in fact statistically more likely to face police violence and incarceration. This is compounded by the disproportionate reliance on punitive measures rather than investment in social services, education, community engagement, and addressing inequality. The recent government-commissioned Race and Ethnic Disparities Report, heavily criticised for failing to acknowledge disparities in health, education and housing for ethnic minorities, is another sign the current government is out of step with the realities people are facing in the UK.

Debates about the nature of policing and security provision have been reignited in recent years with the #MeToo movement and the police killing of George Floyd in the US, sparking protests across the globe including in Nigeria, France, Brazil and South Africa. The UK has been no different in asking difficult questions about how the safety and security of all its citizens is met. It is therefore inadequate that the state’s response to protests against racism, ending violence against women and girls and calling for environmental action is to potentially criminalise activism, and only reinforces suspicions that state policies and institutions are not prepared to be challenged on, nor address, structural causes of discrimination, injustice and exclusion.