Prevent: preventing the full enjoyment of human rights
Many people know about the discriminatory effects of the Prevent strategy, but there are also important human rights implications.
Whilst the Prevent duty is widely criticised for its Islamophobic effects, a problem that is not discussed to the same extent, even though it is certainly worth the attention, is the effect it may have on human rights. Human rights and civil liberties are vital for everyone to enjoy their lives to the fullest extent possible and in as equal a manner to other people as possible. Human rights are most often cited when referring to the protection of minorities, but it is only by pure fortune and coincidence of birth that some of us do not fall within the categories of minorities.
Our rights affect almost every part of our lives.
One of the most obvious human rights implications of Prevent is the potential threat to freedom from discrimination. There are many stories of Muslims being referred to or being interviewed because of Prevent for conduct that would be extremely unlikely to raise eyebrows if a person of a different background had done the same, such as reading books about terrorism or simply referring to terrorism in school discussions. Recently, there have been many reports of Prevent referrals for discussing Palestine in a positive light, though this has long been an issue for Prevent. If it were not enough that Prevent is often applied unequally, there is research that suggests it seems to have further reinforced prejudice against Muslims. Prevent can therefore infringe the right to be free from discrimination in two ways.
The ‘chilling effect’ Prevent has on open and frank discussions reduces the enjoyment of the freedom of expression on a massive scale. On a practical level, service providers are required to quickly report an individual as a potential terrorist, whereas in many cases having an open discussion may be fruitful, in particular when a person has made concerning remarks but may actually become calmer or more restrained after talking to someone. On a human rights level, many people, Muslims especially, instinctively stop themselves from discussing Islam out of a sense of self-preservation.
A study into how Prevent operated in a university setting found that three-quarters of those asked did not feel comfortable to openly talk about Islam at university. The same study found that over half of students admitted that they knew very little, if anything at all, about Islam. This ‘chilling effect’ may therefore also reinforce the discrimination Muslims may face, as discussed in the previous section, because people are unable to ask questions to learn more about what Islam actually means.
Similarly, there are questions about whether Prevent infringes upon the right to respect for a private and family life. In terms of the latter, the ‘chilling effect’ of Prevent may also extend to the home setting and families not being able, or feeling unable, to talk about Islam or issues surrounding extremism privately. There are strong grounds for concern for privacy reasons when it comes to how Prevent is implemented. For example, even when a person is questioned or referred under Prevent and then found to not require any further action, the authorities often still retain a record against this person, even though the individual involved was completely innocent, which cannot be justified to the European Court of Human Rights.
The government has the right to restrict certain freedoms if it is “prescribed by law, pursues a legitimate aim, and is necessary in a democratic society”, but, as this piece shows, there are questions on whether Prevent even satisfies these criteria, in particular whether the definition of “extremism”, upon which everything hinges, is clear enough to eliminate the possibility of being applied arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner. Experts have argued that the vagueness of the definition and its “pre-crime” operation — Prevent targets would-be extremists, as opposed to extremists who have already committed a crime — are considerable causes for concern.
The discretion given to those responsible is also too great for the policy to avoid being “unpredictable and potentially arbitrary”, which then has further negative impacts on societal cohesion. If a piece of legislation violates or may violate human rights, there should be a mechanism available to seek remedies for breaches, but Prevent does not currently have any, so there is no easy way to address any potential human rights infringements.
We need a better counterterrorism strategy that does not infringe upon vital human rights and civil liberties. A better version would have clearer definitions and less discretion. Until this happens, we must make sure that we are all aware of our rights so that we can protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society and the most important people in our lives. We should speak out against any discriminatory treatment and human rights infringement, so that our voices can combine to have real effect.
As an organisation that works to support marginalised and BAME individuals, JAN Trust knows how important human rights are to those members of society who often do not have a voice that is heard. We try to improve the lives of our beneficiaries, in a way that takes their interests into consideration and puts them first, because including them in the fight against important issues is a much more effective approach than restricting the extent to which they can enjoy their lives and rights.