Former United Nations Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai: PHOTO: UN

In the final stages of this month’s general election, Prime Minister Theresa May attempted to bolster her increasingly fragile position with another attack on human rights laws, a move that was rightly condemned by national and international human rights groups.

With coinsiderably less publicity, however, a United Nations report on human rights in the UK, published in May, provided a reminder that legislation, on its own, does not protect our fundamental rights.  People acting together to protect these rights are just as important.

The report, by outgoing UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai, who has just stepped down after six years, recognises that Britain’s civil society, made up of the hundreds of thousands of people who support or participate in monitoring, advocacy and resistance to oppressive actions by state bodies, is ”the reason for many of the positive attributes” that are enjoyed in this country.

Kiai says the UK should consider its civil society “a national treasure”, adding that it “epitomises the kind of ‘unity through diversity’ that civil society can so uniquely foster”.

The limited press coverage of his report exploring freedoms of assembly and association in the UK picked up on wide-ranging concerns he expressed about the government’s draconian and increasingly untenable Prevent surveillance programme.

The context of these concerns, though, is a dismay at “the closing of space for civil society’ and the government’s negative view of organisations “that can and should hold it accountable.”

In contrast to dramatic announcements on scrapping human rights laws, the report says government efforts to undermine the space for civil society organisations “have been subtle and gradual, but they are as unmistakable as they are alarming”.

It warns that by restricting this space domestically, the UK government risks providing international encouragement for “other States whose intention is to repress civil society”.

Maina Kiai’s report addresses a number of the concerns Netpol has raised about freedom of assembly and the right to protest. In particular, however, he highlights an issue we have returned to again and again: the government’s focus on countering alleged “non-violent” or “domestic” extremism by individuals and organisations without a clear and explicit definition of the term and the impact this has on closing down political space for organising and for debate.

The report raises concerns that the current definition remains too broad and its use of “serious criminal activity” is too open to “abusive interpretation”, an issue we highlighted in 2014. As a result, “peaceful protestors feared that they could be easily grouped in this category alongside real and violent extremists”,

At its launch, Kiai said, “the 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”

The report adds that “strong and intrusive powers are bound to have a detrimental impact on the legitimate activities carried out by civil society and political activists, whistle-blowers, organisers and participants of peaceful protests, and many other individuals seeking to exercise their fundamental freedoms”.

It concludes that the government has made little progress, since an earlier UN report in 2014, to alleviate concerns about the retention of personal data on intelligence databases.

The report recommends that individuals are “never categorised as domestic extremists as a result of their peaceful protest activity” and calls on the police to “delete any records on peaceful protestors, political activists and other non-violent activists from the National Domestic Extremism Database and other intelligence databases”.

On the use of undercover officers, the report is unequivocal in insisting that their “use against protest movements, environmentalists, leftist groups, and others exercising their legitimate rights to dissent and peacefully assemble, is not justifiable”.

The former UN Special Rapporteur has encouraged organisations to “continue their important advocacy and monitoring work” to protect and defend the right to protest and to “use every opportunity to participate in decision-making processes”.

Our capacity to do so depends, however, on whether the government, whoever is in power, tries to shut out the UK’s “national treasure” and close down the space for debate.

Preventing it from doing so is just as important as condemning irrational attacks by ministers on human rights legislation.