With plans for 10,000 police officers on duty every day during the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow next month, a concerted public relations campaign from Police Scotland has promised a “human rights-based approach” to the policing of protests.
Last week the Guardian reported that human rights groups including Amnesty International, have called for senior officers in Scotland to adopt Netpol’s Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights as a means of measuring the policing operation against human rights standards and for holding the police to account.
But campaigners are warning that without firm commitments, promises from Police Scotland are not enough.
So how did we get to this point? There is now less than a month to go until COP26 and since the summer, Police Scotland has insisted that it has a “commitment to upholding human rights at the heart of everything we do” and that it will welcome protesters and respect their right to freedom of assembly.
However, senior officers have also said that “public order or criminality will be dealt with swiftly and robustly”. In an interview in June, assistant chief constable Bernard Higgins, who is Gold commander for COP26, made a sweeping and subjective characterisation of “four different groups of potential protesters” who will presumably each receive their own tailored policing response during the two-week event.
Higgins said these groups are young environmentalists; single-issue campaigners; groups using non-violent direct action such as Extinction Rebellion; and “anarchists who, regardless of the nature of the conference, were there to engage in acts of severe violence and significant disorder”.
The problem with this kind of “differentiated” approach is that in the past, it has had a significantly negative and often chaotic impact on freedom to protest for everyone taking to the streets.
This is because it provides considerable scope for rapidly escalating to a more ‘robust’ style of policing, often in response to no more than the perceived threat of “disorder”, in a way that is fundamentally disproportionate and far from respecting human rights.
Over the years, Netpol has repeatedly reported on protesters’ complaints that the police have suddenly and unexpectedly switched to more aggressive and often violent tactics. As we saw from Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer and this year’s opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the police have used targeted surveillance, disruption activities such as restrictions on movement or ‘kettling’, forced dispersals and pre-emptive arrests to target groups they perceive as potentially ‘disruptive’. This was certainly the case during the G7 Summit in Cornwall in summer 2021.
Police Scotland has placed considerable emphasis on prior engagement with groups and will rely heavily on the deployment of Police Liaison Officers. A report by 1919 Magazine says that ACC Higgins and his second-in-command Chief Superintendent Mark Hargreaves have met online with four prominent members of Extinction Rebellion.
However, as point 8 of Netpol’s Charter makes clear, international human rights standards say “organisers of public assemblies, not the police, must decide their level of communication and dialogue”. As we argued in 2019 in “Talking to the Cops – A Guide for Protest Groups”, some protest organisers do find it useful to negotiate with the police but other groups are more reluctant to engage in the same way with senior officers and are deeply suspicious – quite rightly – of the intelligence-gathering role of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs). Netpol continues to advise against any contact with these officers.
Groups can also change their minds: Extinction Rebellion recently reversed its policy of liaising with the police in London prior to actions because the poor attitude of senior officers has made meetings “superfluous”.
Many groups fear that Police Scotland may use their distrust of talking to the police as an excuse to label them as “disruptive” and consequently target them for more oppressive policing tactics. However, negotiation is not the same as accepting without question so-called “liaison policing” and refusing engagement cannot become a justification for treating certain groups more harshly and labelling them as associated with “criminality”.
Oversight of COP26 policing
How, then, will the media, politicians in Scotland, protesters themselves and the wider public find a way to judge whether Police Scotland is able to keep its promises?
After all, Devon & Cornwall Police made similar promises to facilitate protest based on “engagement” and “dialogue” before the G7 Summit earlier this year. By the end of that event, senior officers had opted for a dramatic police raid on a protest camp largely made up of campaigners who had not even been part of any direct action, but who nonetheless had their possessions confiscated for the intelligence-gathering value this provided.
One academic, Professor Stephen Reicher, speaking at a Scottish Police Authority seminar in September on the policing of COP26, was also critical of Devon & Cornwall Police for offering official ‘designated protest sites’ so far away from the G7 summit that they were seen as “ways of marginalising and disempowering the protesters.”
Somewhat alarmingly, Police Scotland is also following the example of Devon & Cornwall Police in actively promoting its preparedness to deal with protesters and the extra training it has given its officers, but in an even more overtly confrontational way. In late summer, it gave huge publicity to officers in riot gear battling a fictional activist group called “Destruction Uprising” for the cameras.
Reicher, from St Andrews University, is one of several academics who have joined Police Scotland’s Independent Advisory Group (IAG), which has a remit to provide “independent and transparent oversight” and to advise senior officers on their human rights obligations. Glasgow City Council and Amnesty Scotland are also members.
At the start of September, Netpol wrote to the IAG’s chair John Scott QC, arguing that any independent oversight requires a benchmark to work from. Our request that IAG members discuss the Charter meant that it was tabled at a meeting in early October.
Amnesty International has said it “strongly recommends” the Charter but as was reported last week, we are concerned that Police Scotland had not directly addressed it at the meeting. Kat Hobbs from Netpol told the Guardian:
“We’d like to know what ‘human-rights based’ means in practice and how they plan to protect people’s article 10 and 11 rights, given that they have a positive obligation under human rights law to protect those, not just to facilitate them.”
Adopting the Charter
In the absence of any practical national guidelines from either the College of Policing or the National Police Chiefs Council for local forces on the policing of protests, we are not only calling on the IAG to use the Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights as a tool for more effectively assessing whether COP26 policing has been human rights compliant or not.
We are also demanding that, if Police Scotland is serious about its commitments, it needs to adopt the Charter as its own standard for planning the operation in advance of protesters arriving in Glasgow in November.
If accepting an initiative that has come from local and national civil society organisations is still too great a leap, then Police Scotland must provide its own detailed human rights guidelines to the thousands of police officers from forces all over Britain, whom it will be accountable for. It must also explain how it will deal with breaches of the human rights promises it has made.
Netpol is supporting the work of the Scottish Community & Activist Legal Project, who are providing know-your-rights and legal observer training for COP26. Visit their website at scottishactivistlegalproject.co.uk