Following the recommendation of the terrorism watchdog that the Government initiate an independent inquiry into the Prevent strategy, the Joint Committee on Human Rights yesterday announced the launch of an inquiry into counter-extremism strategy and its human rights compliance as part of the legislative scrutiny of the forthcoming Extremism Bill.
The JCHR has announced that it is to undertake a “sharply focused inquiry into the Government’s counter extremism strategy” noting that the remit will cover its “compatibility with religious rights and freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The announcement continues, “The Committee also takes interest in the operation of the Prevent Duty in the education sector.”
Criticisms of the new Prevent statutory duty and calls for an independent review of policy implementation to date were voiced during the passage of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill in late 2014 and early 2015 only to be summarily dismissed by the Government. Amendments tabled by opposition peers sought for the Prevent strategy to be reviewed and submitted to both Houses before the a new statutory duty came into force but the suggestions were passed over by Government.
The JCHR, in its legislative scrutiny of the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill raised a number of concerns about the Bill including legal safeguards, rights compliance and the encroachment on academic freedom envisaged with the extension of the Prevent strategy as a statutory duty on universities and other public bodies.
It would seem that those concerns will now see the light of day as the joint committee undertakes a proper review of the manner in which counter terrorism policy has been operating and whether implementation coheres with the UK’s human rights obligations.
There have already been questions raised about the role of Prevent in schools and the UK’s obligations under Article 13 (freedom of expression)) and 14 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Issues arising from conflict between the right to academic freedom and the new statutory duty on universities were voiced by academics in open letters to the Government challenging the impact of the new duty on universities as centres of learning and its probable undermining of anti-discrimination legislation with Muslim students cast as a “suspect community” on campus. Lord Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, and one of the speakers at a series of lectures hosted by Wadham College on Prevent and universities, wrote that the statutory duty would compel academics “to play a formal role in an apparatus of surveillance”.
The breadth of the powers, extending to cover “non-violent extremism” were criticised by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, as extending the “surveillance state” too far. Vince Cable, the former Lib Dem MP, reiterated challenges raised to Conservative policies by Liberal Democrats during the 2010-2015 Coalition years in a speech delivered last year in which hecriticised the emphasis on “non violent extremism” arguing, “A good test of whether legislation is necessary is the demonstration of evidence. There is little credible evidence to suggest an inevitable causal link between holding ‘extreme’ views and terrorism”.
Last year, the UN human rights committee’s urged a review of the UK’s compliance with the international covenant on civil and political rights (ICCPR) recommending that Britain amend key counter-terrorism powers and revise laws on “snooping” by security services. The UN report criticised powers newly introduced in the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, such as passport seizure, the relocation of terror suspects placed under control orders and the period of pre-charge detention. In regards to surveillance powers and the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, the report urged “measures should be taken to ensure that any interference with the right to privacy complies with the principles of legality, proportionality and necessity, regardless of the nationality or location of the individuals whose communications are under direct surveillance.”
The JCHR, which has formidably challenged the UK’s record on counter terrorism legislation and its compliance with human rights in scrutiny of Schedule 7 stop and search and secret courts, is well placed to interrogate recently passed andnewly proposed legislation. With the Home Affairs select committee inquiry into Countering Extremism hearing from Muslim communities firsthand about the deleterious impact of Prevent on Muslim Britons, and the announcement of an inquiry by the JCHR, the question that remains is whether the body of evidence challenging the failed Prevent strategy will be sufficient to force Government to return to the drawing board and develop a strategy that is evidence-based, non-discriminatory, transparent in application and subject to regular independent oversight?
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