Categorized | UK

Britain’s Prevent strategy: Potential implications for civil liberties

Policeman holding a camera

By Ruth Tenne

The British government’s Prevent strategy, whose purpose is to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, is having a big impact on community policing and counter terrorism.

The strategy was initially deployed in 2007 by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) as a communities-focused one. However, in 2011 the Home Office significantly revised the strategy and made it oriented mainly towards risks of extremism and heavily reliant on police resources.

Police-led approach

That is clearly stated in a paper issued by the London Assembly which argues that although it is “necessary for police, government, and public authorities to challenge and counter violent extremism”,

in the Prevent strategy’s current form, community leadership is secondary to an approach led by the government. Rather than engaging communities, the strategy fixates on ideology and deviance from “British values” to identify so-called “extremists” for police and governmental intervention. This policy perspective is based on a theorisation of radicalisation as a religious and political process rather than one related specifically to violence…

This has led the strategy to identify “extremism” as both violent and non-violent and presents serious concerns to civil liberties, and blurs the lines between religious conservatism and violent extremism.

The policy paper goes on to say:

We argue that the current strategy’s centralised and top-down deployment markedly reduces local capacity to find tailored solutions that make sense for any community… In particular, after the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and the establishment of a Prevent duty, we have seen the erosion of the ownership local governments have over the implementation of Prevent.

Policing thought?

During his recent visit to UK the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, lawyer Maina Kiai, raised concerns about the government’s plans for a forthcoming counter-extremism bill, which is expected to include provisions to allow for the banning of groups deemed to be promoting non-violent extremism.

I urge the government to carefully consider the negative unintended consequences of such provisions. It is difficult to define the term “non-violent extremist” without treading into the territory of policing thought and opinion. Innocent individuals will be targeted.

This warning was echoed by dozens of UK academics in a letter to theIndependent in which they argued that

Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, Prevent will make us less safe.

Those worries are further supported by Les Levidow’s article in the newsletter of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. It reports on a number of events which have been cancelled, or blocked, by local authorities under the Prevent strategy for criticising the government’s foreign policies and actions.

In his article Levidow argues that under the Prevent programme

Muslims have been the main target. They have been monitored and reported for “extremist” views that are seen as normal dissent if expressed by non-Muslims. Yet any group’s criticism of UK foreign policy has been increasingly labelled and monitored as “extremist”.

More recently, bank accounts of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and its local branch in Camden, as well as those of other pro-Palestinian organisations, have been closed by the Cooperative Bank whose management did not offer any explanation for this unexpected closure.

…a leaflet circulated by Camden Council in 2015 suggested that “appearing angry about government policies, especially foreign policies” or “showing mistrust towards mainstream media” were potential warning signs of radicalisation.

The Prevent programme has become part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which imposes a legal obligations on public servants , such as, teachers, university lecturers and doctors, to inform the police about any person who is suspected to be “radicalised”, or expressing “extremist” views. Public bodies have to monitor such views and report them to Home Office representatives, who are embedded in local authorities and the police forces. Consequently, local authorities with relatively large population of ethnic or religious minority groups appear to show greater concern over entities and groups that hold so-called “controversial” views.

According to Les Levidow’s article, Camden Council has cancelled, on “security” grounds, a special conference about Islamophobia which was to be held by Birkbeck College (2014). Furthermore, a leaflet circulated by Camden Council in 2015 suggested that “appearing angry about government policies, especially foreign policies”, or “showing mistrust towards mainstream media” were potential warning signs of radicalisation. That seemed to have prompted protests from Muslims and others who argued that the government was endorsing the unacceptable policing of thoughts and ideas.

Local implications

In view of the above-mentioned developments, Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign has written to the local council to express its worries about the potential implications of Prevent for its actions in support of the Palestinian cause and the active stance it takes against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

The letter added:

We also believe that many pro-Palestinian residents of Camden may read the negative coverage of the Prevent strategy in the national media and live in fear of expressing their legitimate views. Those who have a duty to apply the Prevent strategy in Camden’s schools, community centres and places of worship will need your guidance to distinguish between legitimate protests and violent extremism. They would often lack the necessary information and will rely on your advice.

The letter went on to suggest a meeting with Camden Council’s representatives to discuss those issues and “ensure that the implementation of Prevent in Camden does not end up stifling legitimate dissent and further alienating some of the communities that, sadly, are already the target of recruitment efforts by terrorist organisations”.

In response, the senior policy officer for community safety wrote back to say that Camden Council’s

delivery of the Prevent strategy is directed by the Home Office and we focus on our safeguarding duty as a local authority. We can assure you that we will not be influenced to distort our delivery of the Prevent strategy in the way that you describe in your email.

Having been assured by Camden Council that its delivery of the Prevent strategy would not impact negatively on the civil liberties of minority groups and the freedom of expression of human rights groups, such as Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign, members of the campaign felt that the council’s assurance ought to be made public.

A letter to Camden New Journal highlighting the assurance received from Camden Council, as well as giving publicity to Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s work for Palestinian human rights, said:

We are pleased to inform readers that Camden Council has assured us it has no intention of interpreting the Prevent strategy in a way that would threaten non-violent forms of resistance against Israel’s apartheid regime in the occupied West Bank and against the economic blockade of Gaza. Camden has a proud history of solidarity with the struggle against Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. It is the same spirit of solidarity for the victims of racism (in all its forms) that inspires our work in support of the men, women and children of Palestine. We shall continue our struggle for human rights in Palestine.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, of which the Camden group is a branch,says on its website:

We believe that when people stand together we have the power to change the course of history. So we are building a mass movement for Palestine, with people from all walks of life. Together we are standing up to our government, big business and the media, making it clear that occupation, the flouting of international law, and state-sanctioned discrimination are not acceptable.

It is hoped that the applications of Prevent strategy by central and local governments, and the police would not stand in the way of defending the human rights of the Palestinian and the civil liberties of ethnic and religious groups in the UK.

“They who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” (Benjamin Franklin, 1755)

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