Priti Patel's Policing Bill is just the start – as a war reporter I saw how human rights can be whittled away

Priti Patel’s Policing Bill is just the start – as a war reporter I saw how human rights can be whittled away
© Provided by The i Home Secretary Priti Patel has slipped in 18 new pages of targeted anti-protest amendments (Photo: Charlotte Graham – WPA Pool/Getty)

You know that bit in Harry Potter where Dolores Umbridge takes charge and everything feels destabilised and oppressive, and Hogwarts goes from safe under Professor Dumbledore to sinister and unpredictable, with horrifying new rules plastered over the castle walls?

Well today, the House of Lords continue their examination of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This Bill is almost ready to be signed off, having spent months being picked over and debated in the Commons and the Lords.

The “Umbridgey” part is that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has slipped in new amendments targeting protests at this late stage, with only one round of parliamentary scrutiny left. It’s a bit like introducing an unknown couple in the Strictly Come Dancing final. These amendments will be judged on one dance alone.

Our right to assemble and protest is fundamental. It’s protected under international laws and treaties, woven into UK law via the Human Rights Act. These amendments are a middle finger to all of that. They are designed to undermine the lawfulness of protest and civil disobedience. They are a ruse, to render any protest the Government deems inconvenient – such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion (XR), or Insulate Britain – totally unworkable.

Anyone near a protest could be arbitrarily stopped and searched. Protesters could get sentenced to 51 weeks in jail. If another government contemplated these kinds of measures, the UK would be the first to condemn it.

Historically, dissent has made for good governance in the UK. Civil society has been seen as a necessary counterpoint to government. I see you, suffragettes. Now the Government is trying to give increased clout to the executive and rob it off those holding them to account. In other words they’re muzzling civil society, and hoping no one will notice.

Well largely, we haven’t. We’re too comfortable under the snuggly blanket of parliamentary democracy to feel it when our civil liberties are being nicked. We know our votes count but often don’t bother to cast them. We love to hate politicians, but generally stand aside as they operate without our engagement or scrutiny. It never occurred to us that our own government would try to hack at them. Not here! Heavens no.

But human rights are interrelated and indivisible. When one is chipped away at, there are consequences on the rest.  Where law leads, societal norms follow, and if the amendments to the Policing Bill are adopted, it could redefine our democracy.  If protest is criminalised, protesters will be stigmatised, and vulnerable people will have even less of a voice.

It’s something I’ve witnessed whilst reporting on war crimes violations and human rights abuses, in places where the right to protest is inconceivable.

Take Elisabeth who I met in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2009. Her front teeth were knocked out with the butt of a gun six years previously when her country was rocked by a violent coup. Women were raped, men tortured, homes burned. An international war crimes indictment was issued but made little difference to Elisabeth. Local courts couldn’t cope, and the majority of perpetrators would never know justice.

Elisabeth was livid with the rampant impunity. She shook with it as she spoke to me. But there was nowhere to channel that anger. Societal norms meant she didn’t have a voice. Men would have led political protest and she was a woman – a victim. Any movement she might have tried to organise wouldn’t have gained traction. She and I existed in different worlds. Societal norms, backed up in law, meant that if I’d have suffered what she’d suffered, I could have spoken out safely in the UK and would have been heard.

When I was reporting on Darfur in 2010, a close Sudanese colleague was arrested. He was arbitrarily accused of crimes against the state, held without access to a lawyer and tortured. Al-Bashir’s government wouldn’t listen to pleas for his release, and he was imprisoned for a year. Human rights are inalienable – apply to everyone – but his were denied. Should I ever have been arrested for my reporting, protests by fellow journalists and civil society would likely have prompted immediate action.

I’ve seen the haphazard, chaotic abuse of power against civilians who couldn’t dream of being able to express themselves or protest. The process is starting here in the UK right now with this bill.

Raj Chada, the lawyer representing XR activists, told me that he doubts Martin Luther King would have been able to give his “I have a dream” speech under the proposed amendments. Can you imagine?

Katy Glassborow is a former war crimes and crimes against humanity reporter

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