The UK government’s strategy to counter Islamist extremism is affecting the discussion of terrorism, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly has said.
Attempts to identify and counter Islamist extremism through the Prevent programme had “created unease and uncertainty around what can be legitimately discussed in public,” said Maina Kiai, at the end of a three-day visit to the UK in which he warned Britain must live up to its human rights commitments.
“I heard reports of teachers being reported for innocuous comments in class, for example,” Kiai said. “The spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, that I was informed that some families are afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued.”
Kiai warned that Prevent was having the opposite of its intended effect. “By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it,” he said.
The Kenyan lawyer has served in his role with the UN since 2011. Three years ago he published a report criticising UK police for their intelligence gathering on domestic extremists, the use of secret police to infiltrate peaceful protest groups, and excessive use of force in dealing with demonstrations.
While he accepted that some improvements had been made to address his concerns, Kiai warned that a series of fresh measures by the government were reversing those advances.
“I am concerned that, put together, these measures suggest that the government has a negative view of civil society as a critical partner that can and should hold government accountable,” he said.
The Prevent programme was introduced as part of the government’s post-September 11 counter-terrorism strategy, aimed at stopping people becoming terrorists. However, the strategy remains deeply controversial.
Some critics believe Prevent is counter-productive and discriminates against Muslims, while others have said there is no clear way to measure its effectiveness.
Since last summer, Prevent has obliged teachers to refer to police pupils they suspect of engaging in some sort of terrorist activity or radical behaviour. The National Union of Teachers last month voted overwhelmingly to reject the programme over concerns that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”.
More broadly, state surveillance – in both its electronic and human forms – had become an issue that risked undermining people’s confidence in their rights of association, Kiai warned. He raised concerns about the investigatory powers bill, particularly its provisions for thematic warrants and online surveillance, saying it could have a “grave impact on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.
“When you have a sense that there is spying going on at every corner, when you don’t know who’s a spy, it almost goes back to the communist days in the Soviet Union,” Kiai said. “Who’s a spy, who’s an informer? That’s not a way anybody would want to live.
“We’ve gone through terrorism eras, Europe especially has seen massive terrorism in the 60s, 70s and 80s that was going on, managed to handle that by retaining an open society. I think the challenge is how we address the threat of terrorism without restricting people.
“None of us want to live in a country where you are not sure where the next bomb is going off, but none of us want to live in a country where you’ve got to look over your back and watch what you say because you don’t know how it’s going to be used.”
Kiai also called on the government to release the undercover identities of all secret police who spied on activists, saying that the inquiry in the use of undercover officers against protest groups should act as a “truth commission” around that period.
“The impact of that period, from 1968 until it stopped, around groups has had a really, really disastrous impact on people’s trust within some of these groups, he said. “You are never sure who you can trust.
“When you come into the area of sexual relationships that were ongoing, the fact that the state can actually allow people to go and abuse people and trick them and deceive them in that way is utterly unconscionable. I think that issue deserves airing in a truth commission style approach.”
Britain must live up to its democratic ideals to maintain its respect and soft power overseas, Kiai warned, as what happens here resonates across the world. He said: “What you get is when the world starts thinking there is retrogression in terms of human rights and democracy that has a profound impact. What you find is way less open societies using that as an example: ‘It’s happening in Britain, Britain is restricting this, why can’t we?’
“That becomes difficult, and one of the things we are urging the government here is to live up to its international calls for more space for civil society here domestically. There is a disconnect, it seems, between what Britain is saying at the human rights council and what it’s trying to do here.”
This article was written by Damien Gayle, for theguardian.com on Thursday 21st April 2016 19.22 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010