United Kingdom downgraded in global ratings report on civic freedoms16 March, 2023
- The United Kingdom has been downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’
- Restrictive law gives police more powers to undermine the right to protest; with another punitive proposal making its way through parliament
- Authorities continue to detain protesters, with several protesters serving jail sentences
The United Kingdom has been downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ in a new report by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. According to the report, People Power Under Attack 2022, the government's introduction of a range of restrictive laws, particularly on protest, and authorities’ continuous restrictions on protests, led to the downgrade.
Historically regarded as one of the most stable democracies, the downgraded to ‘obstructed’ means civic freedoms, in particular the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is being undermined in the United Kingdom. Other obstructed countries include Poland, Hungary and South Africa.
“The downgrade reflects the worrying trends we are seeing in restrictions across civil society that are threatening our democracy. The government should be setting a positive example to countries that have clamped down on civic space. The UK is becoming increasingly authoritarian and is among concerning company in the CIVICUS Monitor ratings as restrictive laws and dangerous rhetoric are creating a hostile environment towards civil society in the UK. Decision makers across all political parties should be alarmed and make it a priority to protect our rights and freedoms, said Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond.
The government proposed two pieces of legislation which give police further powers to restrict protests. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act gives police unprecedented power to restrict protests on the basis of noise, criminalises one person protests, and imposes further restrictions on both processions and static assemblies.The Public Order Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, includes concerning measures such as Serious Disruption Prevention Orders that could ban named individuals from participating in certain protests and introduces protest-related stop and search powers.
Additionally the government has put forward a so-called Strike bill which would have vast implications on the right to strike, as it gives government ministers the power to set minimum service levels. It also limits protection for workers as it restricts protection of trade unions from legal action and removes the automatic protection of employees from unfair dismissal if the minimum services were not delivered. This comes as thousands of workers have staged strikes in the past few months.
For several years, authorities have repeatedly restricted the right to protest by detaining protesters and preventing demonstrations, in particular on issues such as environmental rights and racial justice. Several protesters find themselves behind bars for participating in protests. In September 2022, Black Lives Matter activists were found guilty of 'violent disorder' after a jury trial and sentenced to two years and five months and two years 10 months respectively. The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) has estimated that at the end of 2022, at least 54 people were jailed for taking part in protests, while over 150 people from the Just Stop Oil movement have also received prison sentences.
“Instead of restricting the fundamental right to protest and those taking to the streets to hold the government accountable, the government should reaffirm its commitment to protecting civil liberties and human rights by dismantling colonial practices, which are clearly evident in its repeated targeting of excluded groups, including those fighting for racial justice and refugees and asylum seekers rights,” said Aarti Narsee, European Civic Forum, Policy and advocacy officer.
The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about the UK government's attempt to undermine human rights with its plans to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA), and to replace it with the ‘Bill of Rights’, which raises fears around the UK’s continued alignment to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). While this could have significant implications on access to justice for everyone, there are concerns that the repeal of the HRA could pave the way for the government to implement a harsher approach to migration and asylum-seeking in the UK. For example, in June 2022 the government attempted to deport refugees to Rwanda, a country deemed unsafe, but was stopped at the last minute by the European Court of Human Rights. Amidst this, the government has repeatedly adopted a hostile rhetoric which has fuelled several attacks against migrants and anti-migrant protests in the past few months.
"To see the UK’s civic space downgraded to ‘obstructed’ is heart-breaking, but not surprising. A narrative is being crafted in the UK that politics should be left to politicians. Party politics is one thing, but politics with a small ‘p’ belongs to all of us and our civic space is where we explore challenges and ideas as a society. An open civic space supports a healthy democracy and it is the duty of the government to protect both,” said Sue Tibballs, Sheila McKechnie Foundation.
“We all want our elected governments to protect the basic principles of democracy, yet this downgrade shows how this government has repeatedly worked to put itself above all accountability. The Public Order Bill threatens the right to protest for all of us, and will put at greater risk some of the most marginalised communities in the UK. Alongside this, recent plans in the Illegal Migration Bill cruelly remove basic human rights from refugees coming to the UK. It is clear that civil liberties in the UK are not just under threat, but are actively being stripped away. This report is a rallying cry to all those who care about human rights to come together and resist this power grab, said Ruth Ehrlich, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Liberty.
These developments come as some ministers and MPs have continued to smear and publicly vilify protesters and civil society, especially those working on climate change, anti-racism and refugee and asylum seeker rights. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has on several occasions made it clear that his goal is to increase the police’s powers to shut down protests and prevent “guerrilla” tactics. The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has been criticised for her language on refugees, along with the former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who referred to protesters as “vandals and thugs”.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 493 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2022.
Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
The United Kingdom is now rated ‘obstructed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 39 other countries with this rating (see all). Visit the UK’s homepage on the CIVICUS Monitor for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates.
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
*Liberty UK is largest civil liberties organisation in the UK, with more than 15,000 members and supporters.
*Bond is a UK network for organisations working in international development.
*Part think tank, trainer, convener, and champion, Sheila McKechnie Foundation facilitates a new approach to civil society. We unleash civil society’s Social Power by being curious about how change happens, by building its confidence and effectiveness, and by championing campaigners and campaigning.
*The European Civic Forum (ECF) is a pan-European network that brings together nearly 100 associations and NGOs across 29 European countries and a research partner for the CIVICUS Monitor.