Demonstrating respect for rights? A human rights approach to policing protest - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Angie Zelter

  1.  The current legislative measures which restrict protest or peaceful assembly (such as SOCPA 2005 and the Public Order Act 1986) are not necessary and proportionate to the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. In fact they severely limit our rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The police and state have more than adequate measures to arrest and detain people for breaches of the peace and many other public order offences without adding these extra measures.

  Peaceful protest should be facilitated by the State who need to enact a Bill of Rights enshrining our rights to peaceful protest even when it might disrupt (in a nonviolent manner) work or proceedings against which the protest has organised and even where free speech might "offend".

  Civil society need to be given these rights in order to bring to public and government attention matters that they are not responding adequately too and to provide a social feedback mechanism that in itself can do much to relieve societal tensions.

  The limits to be placed on the right to protest should be those limits that are on any kind of behaviour and should be covered by the normal rules of society and legislation, ie those that inhibit violent physical acts. This is important because all protest should be nonviolent and also because protest should be encouraged in order to provide a focal point for alternative voices and strategies for exploring ways out of the many complex and serious problems of a world entering climate chaos, wars, poverty and environmental collapse.

  There should be no specific limitations placed on the ability of any groups to protest. But the current limitations against racism, sexism and violence should be respected more widely and the police should arrest and encourage the prosecution of any group threatening violence.

  Protest, however uncomfortable to certain individuals and groups, is an important social mechanism for conflict resolution processes, the first step of which is often protest but which can then lead on to dialogue and resolution.

  The right to protest should not be more strictly curtailed in relation to certain geographical areas. It is especially important that the more powerful parts of society and especially the sites of important decision-making like Parliament, Corporate HQs and AGMs, Military Bases, Embassies, Prisons and Police Stations be open to protest, as this is where many abuses of power can take place.

  The Government proposes to repeal sections 132-8 SOCPA dealing with protest around Parliament and invites Parliament to consider whether additional provision is needed to ensure that Parliament's work is not disrupted by protests in Parliament Square. I think this is not an appropriate way to phrase this as it may well be appropriate for civil society to be able to disrupt the work of Parliament in certain specific circumstances, when for instance it might be engaged in breaking international law (like its decision to go to war in Iraq or to renew its nuclear weapons system). Obviously, such disruption should not be easy nor encouraged. However, if society is so disturbed at the workings of Parliament that and to object vociferously to what they consider wrong-doing, then society at large needs to accept this as a necessary part of a democratic system and to protect this right.

  I can think of no circumstances where it would it be permissible for the State to take pre-emptive action which curtailed protests as long as those protests were to be nonviolent and were not encouraging violence or abuses of any of the Universal Human Rights to which all civilised societies have signed up to.

  2. The existing common law and legislative police powers (such as the common law power to prevent a breach of the peace, stop and search under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the use of force) are not evenly operated in practice. They are used in a discriminatory and abusive manner and are mainly directed against black or moslem minorities.

  Existing police powers are already too wide and fewer are required. The police need to act and be seen to act equally and in a non-partisan manner against all criminals not just the poor and disadvantaged.

  Counter-terrorism powers are not appropriately used in the policing of protests. There have been some ridiculous examples of infringements of rights to protest whereby police have invoked counter-terrorism when dealing with nonviolent protesters who are attempting to act in solidarity with groups whose human rights are being abused—eg, Palestinian or Kurdish rights.

  Do existing police powers pay sufficient regard to human rights. No.

  Are there positive examples of good practice in the policing of protests (whether in the UK or in other countries). Yes. The operations of Strathclyde Police in the policing of the protests at Faslane, Scotland during the Faslane 365 year of blockades (October 2006 to October 2008) was an example of good policing.

  3.  The competing interests of public order and the right to protest can and must be reconciled.

  Any actions during protests that encourage racism or violence of any kind can and should be justifiably criminalised.

  Existing criminal law and practice does not pay sufficient regard to human rights. It is not in accordance with human rights for students at Nottingham University for instance, to be picked up and questioned for six days because the downloaded information from internet terrorist sites in order to write their MA Thesis on Islamic Extremism and International Terrorist Networks (14 May to 20 May 2008).

  Complaints about the handling of protests (including police action during protests) are not adequately addressed as there is no process, independent of the police or state, who deals with such complaints.

  Internal complaints never get far as I can testify from my own experience.

  There is obviously a difficult balance to be struck between the rights of protesters and other competing interests (such as the rights of others or the prevention of disorder or crime. But there are already laws for breach of the peace and against assault and violence, and these are sufficient. If murder is outlawed why are laws against mass murder needed? SOCPA and the Anti-Terrorism Laws should be repealed and we should rely upon natural justice to deal with the problems—that and a reform of the UK's own human rights record, ie. A real ethical foreign policy where we stop arming human rights abusers, stop supporting repressive regimes and start behaving in a globally responsible manner.

May 2008

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