Prevent Watch

Prevent Watch supports call to scrap Prevent at the United Nations

prevent duty united nations

Last week I represented Prevent Watch at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, in support of Rights and Security International’s (RSI) submission to the Human Rights Committee which included Prevent, specifically their call to convince the Committee to compel the UK to scrap Prevent.

Despite what feels like an impenetrable process to begin with, I was struck by the clarity of purpose of these groups, as well as by the HRC members from France, Portugal and Canada, to name a few, who confronted the UK delegation about their lack of progress in addressing concerns raised the last time the committee met eight years ago.

When one of the committee members from France heard of our case about a young boy referred to Prevent simply for joking that he wished the school would burn down, her jaw dropped. This image will stay with me as a reminder that human stories carry much more weight than the clinical presentation of statistics.

This is why we advocate on behalf of our clients and encourage people to speak about what their experiences of Prevent, so that their voices do not drown out among the over 50,000 people referred to date.

Data and privacy concerns prompt call withdraw Prevent

RSI’s presentation shed light on how Prevent not only infringes on fundamental rights such as religious belief and expression, political dissent and the right to be free from discrimination, it also highlighted how it violates privacy rights. Specifically, RSI revealed instances of poor data handling via Prevent, recently also the subject of an Open Rights group report.

One of the recommendations in their submission was that the UN compel the UK government to repeal the Prevent duty, a recommendation we at Prevent Watch have also been voicing after years of documenting Prevent-related cases, specifically of children and young people.

Like the many other civil society organisations present last week, we understood the importance of delivering this message on an international platform, which we hoped would address a government that has chosen to be deaf to 15 years of academic research and case testimonies.

But it is a sad testimony to the UK that Prevent Watch and 17 other UK civil society groups had to leave our own country for Switzerland, to hold our own government to account – especially since the breaches we evidenced were of human rights covenants the UK itself shaped and influenced.

The veto power at the United Nations vs progress on human rights

During my visit, it struck me that those representing countries at the HRC, are more or less in the same boat as those advocating from deep within the civil societies of different countries, in that they are committed and passionate about justice and positive change.

In contrast to this are two severely crippling factors: the complexity of the UN’s legal frameworks and the structural authoritarianism sustained by the power of veto at the Security Council.

Although we often speak about “fundamental human rights”, in the UN realm, there is a sea of diplomatic jargon and underlying treaties beneath what we sum up, often over simply, as “human rights”.

The UK helped draft the three treaties that make up the human rights standards that we so often refer to: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Britain is also a permanent member of the Security Council, and it has the power of veto. Thus, it has the ability to stop any global shifts in policy and law that are not in its own interest.

This means there are limitations to the ability of the HRC to enforce any actions and decisions against the UK government; this is just one of the many documented examples of how the veto system undermines the UN’s human rights mandates.

Calls for change must start somewhere

Despite these challenges, it appears that civil society organisations do benefit from engaging with the UN, particularly when challenging human rights breaches by powerful states like the UK.

It is also valuable to take our concerns with Prevent to a global forum. Although Prevent is a UK policy, it is sold as a “best practice” model for global counter-extremism (CVE) policies in other countries, even when despotic governments use CVE to openly abuse individuals and minorities.

By shining a spotlight on Prevent’s core injustices – as well as the presumptive nature of CVE which also assumes a predisposition to violence based on “risks” related to religious belief and practice, as well as activism that challenges state power – the result is more scrutiny of the UK, and of CVE itself.

This not only embarrasses the UK delegation but can also exert pressure from the broader global community to address similar concerns in other countries’ counter-extremism policies under CVE.

When will the UK government own up to its wrongs?

What was also striking was that when presented with them, the UK delegation continually rebutted allegations of human rights abuses; one delegation member claimed that Britain “supports human rights defenders” and cited the example of the 68 million GBP spent on “human rights” globally.

This claim seemed shocking and hypocritical against the background of Michael Gove’s announcement that same week. In rolling out Shawcross’s recommendations for Prevent, he said the Home Office would keep a list of groups deemed “extremist”; many are human rights defenders.

These organisations will not have access to government funds, nor will public bodies and figures be permitted to engage with them – a situation tantamount to a back-door political ban. The irony is that these groups are the most unlikely to be the ones to request government funding. Still, the threat creates a chilling effect.

It will be another eight years before this particular human rights committee meets again; it will be interesting to see if the UK has made any progress in addressing our, and others, human rights concerns.

Until then, there is a sea of other committees that can be engaged, as well as working groups and summits, that are fora to challenge the abuses of Prevent and we hope, by extension, global CVE.


TRT: UN speaks of ‘chilling effect’ of the UK’s Prevent strategy (News, 2023)

Photo by Mathias Reding on Unsplash

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