AS protests began across the UK ahead of COP26, some commentators were quick to brand activists extremists – but the truth is that peaceful protest is one of the most effective ways for ordinary people to claim their rights.
Amnesty documents the repression of protest around the world and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill at Westminster shows that serious crackdowns are happening in the UK. Scenes of police officers violating the rights of women attending a vigil for Sarah Everard in March were shocking, but even more chilling in the context of the incoming Bill which will expand powers to criminalise peaceful protest to an unprecedented level for police in England and Wales.
In the lead up to CoP26 Police Scotland chiefs committed to taking a ‘human rights based approach’ to policing protest. . In recent days this has been called into question as concerning reports of police containing protestors using the tactic of ‘kettlingʼ, and abusing stop and search powers have emerged. In response Amnesty joined other civil society organisations in calling on the First Minister to intervene and ensure that the right to protest is upheld over the coming days. Next week Amnesty International’s Secretary General Dr Agnès Callamard will meet Nicola Sturgeon and re-state these calls.
We must remember that peaceful protest is vital for a healthy and functioning society. Progress on rights has happened thanks in large part to protest. Rights are not given; they are fought for, and public protest is vital tool in achieving change. That protests can be inconvenient, noisy and gallus is not unintentional, as the phrase goes; well-behaved women seldom make history. Instead, protest should make us pause and reflect on why it is taking place, what protestors are trying to achieve and what barriers exist that have made them resort to protest.
Police Scotland’s warm words are welcome but what’s missing is real accountability. Protecting the rights associated with peaceful protest and taking a truly human rights-based approach needs robust monitoring with a legal underpinning. Such processes have never been embedded in the centralised force – meaning that data on key policing activities like use of force is unavailable. This makes measurement of discriminatory policing impossible.
Amnesty has consistently raised these concerns with Police Scotland and we’re now calling on the Scottish Government to intervene and force a review of data gathering. There are also already great examples of applying international human rights standards to policing on the ground such as NETPOL’s Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights – user friendly interpretation of the UN General Comment on Peaceful Assembly which Police Scotland could endorse and adopt.
As COP enters its second week Police Scotland must recognise its rhetoric on human rights is currently being tested on the world stage. If the force wants to be a truly ‘rights based’ organisation the time to act is now.