Extremist Measures: The UK Government Further Obstructs the Right to Protest

by | Apr 9, 2024

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About Ben Holda

Ben Holda is a grassroots civil rights organiser, and a J.D. candidate at New York University School of Law, where he is pursuing international human rights law.

On March 1, UK Prime Minister Sunak delivered a divisive impromptu speech, much of which was spent demonising groups calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. He claimed that protests have been hijacked by Islamist extremists using “vile, antisemitic tropes” – a reference to the ambiguous phrase “from the river to the sea”– to create an unsafe and hateful atmosphere within the country. This rhetoric accompanies a sweeping government redefinition of extremism, which observers fear will be used to arbitrarily quash lawful dissent.

Contested Claims

Protestors have expressed confusion over Sunak’s claims, saying that their protests have been entirely peaceful. Further, the groups have expressed gratitude for the police, who have helped control the occasional bad actor who infiltrates a march. They understand the Prime Minister’s speech to be the “scrambling” of an unpopular government ahead of a major election.

Regardless of the veracity of Sunak’s claims, government policy is shifting. London Police have blocked pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the city. UK Communities Secretary Michael Gove recently introduced a new expansive definition of “extremist” – the spearhead of an effort to ban certain advocacy groups from public life. The new definition is projected to include many large Muslim coalitions within the country, and places them in a category of proscription alongside far-right nationalist groups.

The Right to Dissent

The government’s formal understanding of ceasefire protest groups as extremist forbids them from holding meetings with government officials, not to mention deprecates their stated intentions. The redefinition is a clear attempt to dissuade protestors from exercising their right to speech, and figures as the latest effort by the UK government to restrict and criminalize protest activity.

Political speech and assembly are broadly, but not absolutely, protected under international human rights law. Governments retain a limited right to suspend or proscribe protests in certain circumstances – for instance, during public health emergencies, or if they are certain to result in widespread property destruction.

Human rights organisations assert that UK anti-protest measures have long constituted a decisive breach of human rights. A full argument for whether the most recent measures are legally justified, which takes that history into account, would be far too intricate for this blog post. However, a short list of elements important to that discussion may include the following:

  • The UK government would need to demonstrate that the ceasefire protests indeed advocate for national, racial, or religious hatreds that constitute incitement to discrimination or hostility.
  • Specific to the contentions of extremism, they would need to prove that their new definitions of “extremist” are not so broad as to curtail or discourage peaceful assembly.
  • The UK government would also need to prove that the mechanisms for redress are sufficiently speedy, such that delays do not nullify the importance of the contested speech.

Illuminating the first point, a UK Adviser on Social Cohesion has called the designation of protestors as Islamist extremists outrageous, noting that: “Some [protestors] are not even pro-Palestinian people, just anti-war. There are clearly Jewish people there, there’s a whole range of people there, and to try to frame these demonstrations as Islamist extremism is completely far-fetched and untrue.”

Regarding the second, the government’s independent watchdog for terrorism legislation has described the new definition of extremism as “… a move away from people who are doing bad things, towards people who think bad things or have a bad ideology.” Compounding the risk of arbitrary enforcement, the conservative government has a history of censuring Muslim advocacy groups without justification.

Finally, the government is internally aware that such sweeping actions come with a significant risk of legal challenge, but have yet to publicize an appeals mechanism for advocacy groups that fall afoul of the new definition.

Every day, the civilian death toll in Gaza ticks upwards, as Israel bombs refugee camps, hospitals, and bread lines. The UK is one of a few global powers that has the cache to influence Israel’s assault on Gaza, and a shift in its foreign policy could have the ability to save countless lives. Protest is critical at this juncture, and the UK’s cynical attempt to suppress it belies a lack of concern for the humanitarian crisis at hand, let alone a lack of respect for the right to protest.



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