RDN evidence to the JCHR on protest

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights is revisiting its inquiry into policing protest in the light of the G20 protest, the Iona School mass arrest and the Tamil takeover of Parliamentary Square. Here’s what I sent in evidence.

Evidence to the JCHR, follow-up on Protest and Policing inquiry
by Richard D North
fellow of the Social Affairs Unit and editor of The Right Sites

[Part (1) deals with G20, Iona School and Plane Stupid’s police spy and Part (2) deals with the Tamil takeover]

As the JCHR implies by its willingness to revisit its work in Demonstrating respect for human rights? , events in the City of London on the 1st and 2nd of April – the G20 protests – have made discussion of protest even more urgent. The events at the Iona School in Sneinton, Nottingham also raise important issues. I hope the committee will use this opportunity to speak more critically than heretofore about direct action protest and human rights at what we might call a constitutional level.

Allegations about police infiltration of Plane Stupid and the campaigners’ response to them point to this kind of more profound issue because they are illustrative of the antinomian nonsense many protestors and their defenders believe about the special rights their beliefs afford them.

Demonstrating a respect for human rights? concentrated on the easiest part of the protest issue: identifying and discussing bad behaviour by police. It also concentrated on discussing the parts of protest law (for instance controlling protest round Parliament) in which it was easy to take the conventionally liberal approach of aiming to facilitate spontaneous protest.

More generally, and at the constitutional level, I think it is fair to say the report took a conventionally liberal view of human rights and protest. My main point here is that even if it is true that human rights courts have mostly taken the view that almost all “peaceful” protest must be accommodated, the JCHR ought at least to acknowledge that events in London on 1 April help show that this view may be too permissive.

I hope recent events will persuade the committee that if protestors won’t take a more mature view of their rights and obligations, their abuse of society’s tolerance is such that it is time that parliamentarians did.

The State and society have to accord a dignity and courtesy to protestors even when the campaigners refuse to return the favour. However, if the State and society do not command and demand respect from all parties, including protestors, both the State and society in the end suffer.

I argue that Parliament has a duty maintain the dignity and authority of the State because the subjects of the Crown have a right to look to the State to play its limited part in producing a sound society.

Less pompously, if parliament does not at least delineate and condemn infantile but corrosive abuses of freedoms it will risk being seen as being little better than those it refuses to chastise and even control.

The absurdity of protest on 1 April
On April 1 many peaceful protestors were either naively duped or cynically duplicitous as they provided cover for more violent types. Quite apart from that, it is time to stress that even if the “peaceful” protestors could claim a human right to protest on the streets of the City that day, and even if they had merely caused mild inconvenience and disruption, they ought to be ashamed to have wasted police time so uselessly at such a time and place.

Their protest failed two important human rights tests. The protestors’ case had been given ample publicity during a previous large demonstration on 28 March so there was no argument that the campaigns needed special expression on 1 April. Nonetheless, the protestors continued with their demonstrations when they were bound to cause disruption out of all proportion to their value.

The recent cases
It hardly needs saying that the police must always be held to account for their tactics and just now in the cases of the pre-emptive arrests of a body of trespassers at the Iona school and the “kettling” of demonstrators in the City. Obviously, police must also be held to account at an operational level when officers are alleged to be using unwarranted force and to be breaking the law (or disobeying orders) in being unmarked.

The Iona School incident raises less challenging questions than the G20 protest in the sense that it is pretty obvious that direct action protestors do not have a human right to take over a school or to conspire to interrupt operations at a nearby power station.  The G20 protests raise the more interesting question as to why so blatant an abuse of freedom has gone largely unremarked by the authorities and most of the media.

The alleged police infiltration of Plane Stupid, and Plane Stupid’s response to it, may help people see that much protest is almost hilariously blind to constitutional rightness. These campaigners seek to disrupt operations at airports, and have done so. They can hardly be surprised if the police seek intelligence on such activities. Yet Plane Stupid claim a human right to privacy even when they are plotting criminal acts.

Should we outlaw more protest?
There are obvious moves available to us, extending existing approaches. One possibility would be to further outlaw or limit protest of any kind or certain kinds at certain places at certain times. Another would be to insist on liaison with police for more and perhaps most sorts of protest.

At a practical level, interference might cause a dangerously counter-productive compensatory activity sheltering under resentment, whether feigned or not. If protestors knew that mass activity was explicitly forbidden or constrained in one place, it might be attempted elsewhere or more devious and inconvenient stunts might be evolved. In short, it may be expedient to continue with the present absurd situation.

If we can’t develop better law, we should at least aim to reframe the constitutional argument. We should label much present protest as infantile, unproductive and undemocratic. It would help if the JCHR declared that much protest, and the recent protests which occasioned the JCHR’s present return to the matter, importantly fail the human rights test that one’s exercise of freedom should take account of its effects on others’ freedoms. They needed to pass tests as to appropriateness and proportionality. Our cases fail the tests to the point at which parliamentarians ought to comment on it.

If on pragmatic grounds they cannot recommend outlawing such behaviour, the JCHR should at least risk asserting that it is not a human right to devise inconvenience and worse for one’s fellow-citizens, provided there are ample alternative means to register protest and where necessary they are facilitated by the State.

It is important to say that sensible new limits to protest should not be favoured or introduced for the convenience of the police, or out of fear that the police cannot and should not operate with better discipline.

Evidence to the JCHR, follow-up on Protest and Policing inquiry
by Richard D North
fellow of the Social Affairs Unit and editor of The Right Sites
Text below sent in an email on Saturday, 2 May 2009

Supplementary note on Tamil protest in Parliament Square

I do not have detailed knowledge of the recent Tamil protest in Parliament Square but would say that it fits into my general thesis that there is a very present need to stress that there is an important right to protest in public but no general right to cause inconvenience (let alone anything worse).


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Publication date

07 May 2009