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The Policing Bill is one of the most serious threats to human rights and civil liberties in the UK’s recent history

4 min read

Soft power is how a country’s cultural and economic influence can persuade others to do something. It is summed up in the often-repeated line that “people are more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.” And it is a key part of the UK's approach to strengthening democracy and defending our values around the world.

It enables the UK government to call out the fraudulent Presidential election in Belarus, empowering Neil Bush, the UK Ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to say the crisis “spirals ever further towards a never-ending black hole of systematic and relentless state-led human rights violations.”

It enables the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to describe Hong Kong’s decision to target leading pro-democracy figures for prosecution as “unacceptable” and declare “the right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life - protected in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law - and it should be upheld.”

And in Colombia, where excessive and disproportionate force during anti-government protests has led to the death of dozens of civilians, the UK government could call for “the right to peaceful assembly and association” to be “guaranteed.”  

We use our culture, our values, our model of democracy as an example to influence others.

And yet there is a Bill working its way through the Lords which will undermine this. That serves only those impressed by examples of power.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill represents one of the most serious threats to human rights and civil liberties in the UK’s recent history.

The Bill radically increases sentences for breaking protest conditions, it enables the Home Secretary to choose which protests are legal, and it allows the Police to impose conditions on a protest if they have reasonable belief that the noise generated may “result in serious disruption.” Creating noise and disruption is fundamental to many protests and it is a well-established principle in international law that a degree of tolerance towards such disruptions is required from the public and authorities.

Our government which claims to champion freedom and libertarianism has let the balance of power swing too heavily towards authoritarianism

How would the UK government react if in Belarus the police clamped down on anti-government protests for being too noisy? Or if pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong were shut down because their Home Secretary equivalent banned them? Or if Columbia radically increased sentencing for protestors?

As chair of the G7, the UK asked nations to reaffirm their belief in open societies and cooperate on protecting civic space and freedoms of expression and assembly. It did not ask them to introduce domestic legislation to the contrary.

Giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, lawyers warned that proposals in the Bill “clearly violate international human rights standards,” as have three Special Rapporteurs to the UN. David Boyd, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, said it’s “troubling” that “a country as wealthy and powerful as the UK” is moving away from the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association, and Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, stated the Bill “may fall short of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

It would be wrong to directly compare the UK's democracy with that of Belarus, Hong Kong, or Columbia. But it is not wrong to be highly critical of the direction of travel, as history has taught us not to wait. You don’t judge a democracy by the harvest, you judge it by the seeds being sown. Decisions being made that can lead to repression.

Our government which claims to champion freedom and libertarianism has let the balance of power swing too heavily towards authoritarianism. It has weakened the power of our example. And it must be reversed.


Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Select Committee.

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