A United Nations expert today urged the United Kingdom (UK) to revise a series of legal and policing measures that are having a negative impact on its citizens’ right of peaceful assembly and association.
Measures such as the use of undercover police officers embedded in protests, containing protesters through ‘kettling’, and restricting the ability of various groups and unions to peacefully protest are putting at risk the right of association, said the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai.
“The United Kingdom, like much of the world, is going through some tough economic challenges that will undoubtedly cause dislocation and discontent. It is in such difficult times, with angry and frustrated citizens, that the respect for freedom of peaceful assembly must be at its highest,” he said at the end of his mission to the UK. “No matter how old a democracy, there is always space for continued improvements.”
During his 10-day visit to the UK, Mr. Kiai went to London, Belfast and Edinburgh where he met senior officials, representatives of the legislature, human rights commissions and other independent monitoring institutions, and civil society.
In England and Wales, Mr. Kiai expressed concern over the use of undercover police officers in non-violent groups as was the case with police officer Mark Kennedy, who infiltrated many protest groups between 2003 and 2010 before he was discovered by political activists.
“The duration of this infiltration, and the resultant trauma and suspicion it has caused, are unacceptable in a democracy,” he said, calling for a judge-led public inquiry into cases like this to give voice to those who were deceived by their Government.
“These cases are as damaging as the ‘phone-hacking’ matters which were the subject of a judge-led public inquiry, and it is crucial that similar practices by the State, in relation to groups which are simply implementing their civic duty to peacefully campaign for change, be subject to an independent investigation,” he stressed.
Mr. Kiai said he was also disturbed by the police practice of ‘kettling’, which has been used in London to contain protesters for long hours with no access to water or sanitary facilities. “I believe that this practice is detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature,” he said.
In addition, he drew attention to article 13 of the Public Order Act, which allows for the prohibition of marches, which was recently used to prevent the English Defence League, a xenophobic group, from protesting.
“While I acknowledge that such a measure has only been used twice in 30 years, I firmly believe that it is intrinsically disproportionate and discriminatory as it affects all citizens wanting to exercise their right to freedom of peacefully assembly,” he noted.
In Northern Ireland, Mr. Kiai stressed the need to ease tensions between communities through dialogue, and emphasized that a political resolution is essential to prevent parades from becoming events where these tensions surface.
In Scotland, Mr. Kiai denounced the imposition of cost-recovery measures on parade organizers by local authorities as they place a heavy burden on them that restricts their right of assembly.
The Special Rapporteur was also appalled to hear about the existence of a blacklist of union members in the construction industry, with no sanctions allegedly taken against those who benefited from the list. “It is crucial that strong actions be taken against the making and using of such lists as a deterrence,” he underscored.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. Mr. Kiai is scheduled to present a report on his visit to the Council in May.