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UK Prevent strategy 'promoting extremism', UN warns

Special rapporteur says Prevent strategy is having 'opposite of intended effect' and creating 'Big Brother' culture reminiscent of Soviet Union
Maina Kiai said the Prevent strategy was "dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population" (Maina Kiai/Flickr)

The UK government risks "promoting extremism, rather than countering it" and is creating a "Big Brother" culture reminiscent of the Soviet Union, a United Nations special rapporteur has warned.

Kenyan lawyer Maina Kiai, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, flagged up concerns about the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy during a three-day visit to the UK, which ended on Thursday.

The current government has made countering non-violent extremism the central focus of its counter-terrorism strategy despite longstanding concerns particularly in Muslim communities that Prevent is discriminatory and amounts to a form of surveillance.

Prevent was extended into schools, universities, hospitals and other public sector settings last year, placing a legal obligation on teachers, doctors and other staff to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism".

But Kiai said the feedback he had received on the implantation of Prevent had been “overwhelmingly negative”, and he had heard “countless anecdotes of the programme being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling”.

“This lack of definitional clarity, combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public,” he said. 

“It appears that Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population.”

Kiai also raised concerns about the government’s plans for a forthcoming counter-extremism bill 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,” he said.

“Many more will fear that they may be targeted – whether because of their skin colour, religion or political persuasion – and be fearful of exercising their rights. Both outcomes are unacceptable.”

'Spectre of Big Brother'

Referring to reports of schoolchildren reported to Prevent for comments in class, Kiai said that the “spectre of Big Brother loomed large”.

“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. Who’s a spy, who’s an informer? That’s not a way anybody would want to live.”

Kiai’s remarks mirror concerns raised by David Anderson, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, last month in front of the parliamentary human rights select committee, which is conducting its own review into government counter-extremism policy.

Anderson has called for an independent review of Prevent and highlighted concerns that some aspects of the strategy may infringe on European human rights laws guaranteeing freedom of religious expression.

Kiai is the second senior UN expert to speak out about Prevent. In a report in February, Ben Emmerson, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, said that teachers “should not be required to act as watchdogs or intelligence officers”.

“Such measures may lead pupils and students to self-censor to avoid being branded ‘extremist’, cause teachers and other staff to view pupils and students as potential threats, or avoid discussing certain issues or inviting guest speakers whose views may be controversial,” Emmerson said.

Kiai's comments were welcomed by Massoud Shadjareh, the chair of the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

"Successive governments have exploited the terrorism threat to appropriate ever more intrusive anti-democratic powers for the state. The effect of that has been to securitise the discourse around minority groups so as to stigmatise them," said Shadjareh.

"On top of that they have become much more totalitarian in their approach to civil society groups seeing them as opponents instead of partners."

Defenders of Prevent deny that it is a surveillance programme and claim it has been successful in countering both the extremist ideology of the Islamic State (IS) group and far-right organisations such as the English Defence League.

Writing on the National Police Chiefs’ Council website on Thursday, Leicestershire Chief Constable Simon Cole, who leads the NPCC’s work on Prevent, said the strategy had been successful in stopping people being drawn into extremism and was “making a difference every day to the lives of vulnerable youngsters in towns and cities across the country”.

"Prevent is voicing the concerns of people of good conscience. It is stopping people being criminalised, it is safeguarding the vulnerable. It is making us all safer, in a proportionate, thoughtful fashion,” said Cole.

Kiai’s remarks were criticised by Philip Davies, a member of parliament for Cameron’s Conservative Party and a member of parliament’s justice select committee.

“This lecture on human rights by somebody from Africa is staggering,” Davies told the Sun newspaper.

“He should clear off back to his own continent to look at some of the grotesque abuses of human rights that take place on a daily basis led by people like [Zimbabwean President] Robert Mugabe.”

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