Following on from the launch of Rights Watch (UK)’s landmark report Preventing Education: Human Rights and UK Counter Terrorism Policy in Schools, RW(UK) and Chatham House held a invite only roundtable seminar that brought together a group of leading experts to assess the UK Government’s approach to counter-extremism. The seminar represented a unique opportunity to reflect on the impact and effectiveness of the Government’s current counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, at a time when the UK Government is reviewing its counter terrorism strategy and looking to embed and extend the current strategy through the enactment of a new Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill1 The aim of the seminar was to encourage reflection on the lessons from the Prevent strategy and the experiences from Northern Ireland, to foster a cross-fertilisation of ideas between various stakeholders, to contribute to parliamentary scrutiny of the proposed Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill, and to increase co-ordination and effectiveness of UK civil society in this field.
The seminar was attended by 25 key representatives from civil society, academia, government, the public sector, and policy institutes. This was the first time that such a diverse group of stakeholder had come together to consider the UK Government’s current approach to counter extremism. Those in attendance engaged in discussion on a range of timely and important issues such as the place of countering extremism in wider counter-terrorism policies and the risks of counter-productiveness, the possibility/challenges of defining extremism and of identifying non-violent behaviours that are accurate indicators of persons likely to commit acts of violence; the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy in stopping people becoming terrorists and supporting terrorism; the impact of Prevent on the exercise of core democratic rights, such as freedom of expression and whether any limitations of such rights are necessary and proportionate in the circumstances; the impact of the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty on 1 July 2015, under which certain bodies (such as schools) must have regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism in the exercise of their functions; and the merits and workability of introducing further civil orders in the pre-crime/pre-terrorism space in order to restrict extremist activities, as is envisaged in the proposed Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill.
The question of how to tackle extremism is complex and often divisive as was demonstrated by the range and distinctiveness of views expressed at the roundtable. However the representatives did find some common ground. While it was acknowledged by all that there is a need to protect the public against acts of terrorist violence, there was also agreement that there needed to be inclusive consultation on the impact of counter-extremism measures, that any counter extremism measures that are employed must have a credible policy basis which takes account of empirical evidence regarding the causal link between the expression of non -violent extreme views and terrorism, that there needs to be adequate transparency with respect to how any counter extremism policies are formulated, reviewed and implemented, and a clear and cohert explanation about why these measures are necessary given the policies (including safeguarding policies) and laws (including the number of pre curser offences to terrorism) that are already in place. The attendees also agreed that the negative perception of the Prevent strategy amongst certain communities in the United Kingdom – in particular, certain Muslim communities – impacts on the legitimacy and effectiveness of the strategy.
The discussions also highlighted that there are still a lot of important issues and questions to be grappled with. In particular, questions remain as to whether it is necessary and legitimate for the state to intervene in the pre-criminal space through the introduction of further civil orders aimed at tackling extremist activities, whether the current counter-extremism strategy is in fact achieving its stated aim of preventing people from being drawn into terrorism and the whether it is necessary to have counter extremism policies and laws given the policies and laws that are already in place. In order to answer such questions, there needs to be a full assessment of how Prevent fits within the Government’s broader counter-terrorism strategy and current safeguarding policies, as well as robust review and oversight of the Government’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies. Attendees suggested that the Government should ensure a more open and transparent policy, and should consult with those impacted by the policy in order to promote rather than stifle community engagement.
This seminar is the first in a series of seminars that Rights Watch (UK) and Chatham House will be holding that will access the domestic and international approaches to countering extremism and identifying best practice standards for upholding human rights while countering terrorism. These Seminars are supported by a grant from Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the OSIFE of the Open Society Foundations, the Aziz Foundation and Joseph Roundtree Charitable Trust.
Rights Watch (UK) continues to call for the abolition of the Prevent strategy in schools in the United Kingdom and for the Government to hold an independent review of the entire strategy as recommended in our report, Preventing Education: Human Rights and UK Counter Terrorism Policy in Schools. Growing calls for the abolition and/or independent review of the Prevent strategy have been made by domestic and international stakeholders including the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the Home Affairs Select Committee, Parliamentarians, the National Union of Teachers as well as United Nations representatives.
1The Queen’s Speech 18 May 2016, Background Notes, p.49, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/524040/Queen_s_Speech_2016_background_notes_.pdf