UNITED KINGDOM PRESS RELEASE

UK added to human rights watchlist over threats to peaceful assembly

Johannesburg, 23 September 2021

  • Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill threatens the right to protest
  • Protesters face heavy policing and detentions
  • Repeated targeting of climate defenders

The United Kingdom has been added to a watchlist of countries, which includes Afghanistan, Belarus, and Nicaragua, due to a rapid decline in fundamental civic freedoms. The restrictive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, which gives police further powers to crackdown on protests, coupled with the ongoing violations on protesters, poses a serious threat to civic freedoms in the country.

The new watchlist is released by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks the latest developments to civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, across 196 countries.

Concerns have been raised by civil society and UN Special Rapporteurs on the ‘Policing Bill’ which contains several clauses that give police more powers to restrict the right to protest and will have serious repercussions for minority groups, including Gypsy and Traveller communities, Black people and people of colour. The bill is currently being reviewed by the House of Lords, after passing in the House of Commons (lower house of parliament) amid massive opposition from civil society and protests calling for #KillTheBill. Police responded to these protests with excessive force and detention of protesters.

Several other legislative developments, such as the New Elections bill and amendments to the Human Rights Act, threaten fundamental rights and democratic checks and balances.

“The Policing Bill threatens the right to protest for all of us, and puts at greater risk some of the most marginalised communities in the UK. Alongside this, the government's plan to amend the court system and Human Rights Act will make it harder for all of us to protect our basic rights. In court, in Parliament, and on the streets, this Government is dismantling the tools we use to hold it to account, to protect our rights and stand up to power. People are waking up to this agenda and, as we have seen from growth in Liberty’s support, are coming together to resist this power grab,”- Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns.

“This bill is incompatible with international law and sets a bad precedent internationally. At a time when the right to protest is under attack around the world, the UK should be setting a positive example, rather than making it harder for people to protest,” Stephanie Draper, Chief Executive, Bond.

Climate justice and anti-racism protests have also been met with repression by authorities. Most recently, arrests carried out during protests staged by environmental group Extinction Rebellion, ahead of COP26, are extremely concerning. The group reports that around 200 people were arrested during its actions, with reports of heavy-handed policing, with footage showing police rushing to form a cordon at the protest, activists reportedly being “trampled” by police officers. Just last week, over 150 protesters were arrested from the Insulate Britain movement for blocking the M25 motorway in London. Added to this, continuous public vilification by the current government of climate protesters as “extremists” has had a further chilling effect on the right to protest.

These policing tactics set a dangerous precedent and should the controversial Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing bill be signed into law, it will only grant police even greater powers to crack down on protests.

“Policing of protests in the UK has shown a worrying trend. We cannot forget the images of women who were pinned to the ground by police when simply protesting for their own safety during #ReclaimTheStreets protests. Police continue to act with absolute impunity with no consequences for the disproportionate use of force during protests. This coupled with the Policing bill, poses a serious threat to the fundamental right to peaceful assembly,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research officer for Europe, CIVICUS.

The United Kingdom is currently rated NARROWED by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 40 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where democratic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, are increasingly being violated (see full description of ratings). See Frequently Asked Questions about the Watchlist here.

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For more details, or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Aarti Narsee, European Civic Space Researcher for CIVICUS

Aarti.narsee@civicus.org and media@civicus.org