Prevent anti-terror programme incompatible with human rights, says Amnesty

The human rights campaign group called for it to be scrapped.

Aine Fox
Thursday 02 November 2023 08:17 GMT
The anti-terror Prevent programme should be scrapped, Amnesty International said (Alamy/PA)
The anti-terror Prevent programme should be scrapped, Amnesty International said (Alamy/PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The anti-terror Prevent strategy violates fundamental freedoms and should be scrapped, according to a report by a human rights organisation.

Amnesty International said there is a significant risk of discrimination against certain groups, including Muslims and children, and described the programme as lacking transparency, with people often unaware why they have been referred or how they can challenge it.

The organisation also said it has a chilling effect on rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, saying Amnesty has spoken to people referred “largely because they expressed non-violent political beliefs”, including someone who said their employer referred them for their left-wing social media posts.

The Prevent programme, which covers England and Wales, aims to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism by tackling the ideological causes, intervening early to support people considered “susceptible to radicalisation”, and enabling people “who have already engaged in terrorism to disengage and rehabilitate”.

The Government said the programme targets no one community, group, or individual and is used proportionately, as it maintained that scrapping it would severely weaken the effectiveness of the country’s counter-terrorism strategy.

But Amnesty, in its “This is the thought police” report, cited an example of an 11-year-old boy being referred after making a comment during a fire drill that he hoped the school would burn down.

His mother had previously raised concerns about his stress, workload and anxiety, exacerbated in the pandemic, and had told the school about his childhood trauma and the impact on his mental health.

The charity said a Prevent police officer later said the referral would not be taken any further “as it appeared to be simply a case of an 11-year-old child struggling with school”.

Prevent is fundamentally incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations...(its) dragnet approach inevitably sweeps up innocent people and can destroy their lives and futures

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty

Amnesty said that “widespread stereotypes linking Muslim boys with ‘extremism’, ‘terrorism’ and Prevent, influenced the decision to refer him”, saying that more broadly Islamophobic stereotypes have “played a major role in referrals to Prevent”.

The charity also said a disproportionate number of neurodiverse people and children feature in Prevent referrals.

It said the scheme should be replaced with “greater investment in child protection and education, and safeguarding methods with a proven track record”.

Amnesty said it had met 51 people, including those directly affected by Prevent, as well as activists, academics, journalists, students, a barrister, former or current police officers and Prevent practitioners, in the year to June 2023, to inform its report.

An Amnesty International researcher took part in Prevent training and the report was also informed by an online questionnaire which had 4,685 responses, the charity said.

The first duty of government is to protect the public and Prevent is a vital safety net against the threat posed by terrorism

Home Office

The report said: “The violations documented in this report lead to a stark conclusion: the UK must scrap the Prevent strategy in order to comply with its international human rights obligations.”

Among its other recommendations, Amnesty said alternatives to the criminal justice system for children accused of terrorism offences should be established and that there should be effective remedies for victims of human rights violations under Prevent, such as compensation and rehabilitation.

If the strategy remains in place, Amnesty said an “effective independent complaints mechanism” should be established to challenge referrals, people referred should be informed in writing, and data on ethnicity and religion of those referred should be collected and published.

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said: “Prevent is fundamentally incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations.

“Prevent has a chilling effect across many human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly and the right to equality and non-discrimination.

“There is no transparency and individuals are having to pursue costly multi-year battles for information about their own referrals.

“The dragnet approach inevitably sweeps up innocent people and can destroy their lives and futures.”

He said there is a “shroud of secrecy” around the programme which was “alarming”, with people having no way of knowing what is being done with their information “or if they will be flagged as a danger for life”.

A Home Office spokesman said: “The first duty of government is to protect the public and Prevent is a vital safety net against the threat posed by terrorism.

“Encouraging disengagement with the programme undermines its ability to reach at-risk individuals and is irresponsible and dangerous.

“Since 2015, more than 3,800 people have been supported through the Channel programme and countries across Europe and beyond have developed preventative programmes inspired by the Prevent model.”

A review of the Prevent programme by ex-Charity Commission chairman William Shawcross, published in February, found it was “out of kilter with the rest of the counter-terrorism system, and the UK terrorism threat picture” and “must return to its overarching objective: to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

Terrorism was wrongly treated as a mental illness and there was a “failure” by those working on Prevent to properly understand the nature of ideology in Islamist radicalisation which risks “several potentially serious consequences”, he said.

Updating Parliament in September six months on, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said officials will be trained to spot “genuine radicalisation” with face-to-face training being rolled out, and described how Prevent duty training will “highlight the importance of ideology and enhance understanding of the drivers of Islamist and extreme right-wing terrorism”.

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