“No matter how old a democracy, there is always space for continued improvements.”
Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, recently conducted a fact-finding mission to the United Kingdom. During the country visit, he assessed the protection of the rights to freedom of association and assembly and identified areas for improvement for the protection of these rights. At the conclusion of the mission, Mr. Kiai issued a press statement highlighting his preliminary findings and recommendations.
Mr. Kiai expressed concern about certain restrictions on public protests and demonstrations in the UK. In particular, he noted that England made use of undercover police officers who infiltrate the activities of non-violent protest groups engaged in legitimate democratic activities. He also noted that the Mark Kennedy case, in which undercover officers formed strategic relationships with non-violent protestors in order to obtain information on their activities, illustrated how this practice can negatively impact victims in the aftermath of the infiltration.
The Special Rapporteur additionally expressed concern that Article 13 of the Public Order Act, which allows authorities to prohibit public marches, poses a legal restriction to citizens’ right to peaceful protest. The Special Rapporteur similarly condemned the police tactic of containment or ‘kettling’, in which protestors are restricted by police officers for lengthy periods of time, sometimes without access to water or sanitary facilities. Both the blanket bans on marches as well as the practice of kettling were criticized by Mr. Kiai for their indiscriminate and disproportionate violation of freedom of peaceful assembly rights.
In relation to the protection of freedom of association in the UK, the Special Rapporteur praised the large number of charities and an overall vibrant civil society sector. Nevertheless, he highlighted some worrisome practices that currently restrict freedom of association rights. Counter-terrorism measures, for example, have led to a ban on certain organizations despite the lack of proof that they are involved in terrorist activities. Many organizations run by minority communities have as a result been deterred from expressing themselves due to fear of being labeled as “extremist.”
Despite room for improvement, the Special Rapporteur on the whole commended the UK for considerable progress in the protecting the rights to freedom of assembly and association. He noted that several good practices, such as the adoption of a human rights based approach to facilitating parades and protests in Northern Ireland, could provide a model for countries wishing to strengthen their protection of these rights.
The full country report will be presented to the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2013.