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UK police undercover: a dangerous subplot

What the police infiltration of legitimate activist groups also reveals is a far more disturbing global phenomenon: the right to public protest is getting harder to defend

Adele Poskitt Rowena McNaughton
30 January 2011

British PC Mark Kennedy’s sudden moment of conscience earlier this month has spawned some interesting new dialogue about where the line should stand between undercover observer and agent provocateur. But what the police infiltration of legitimate activist groups also reveals is a far more disturbing global phenomenon: the right to public protest is getting harder to defend.

Since the twin towers fell on September 11, 2001, governments around the globe have systematically been stepping up restrictive civil society measures, under what they deem “public protection”. Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights containing the right to assemble, evidence shows democratic dissent is becoming a dangerous past time.

On the African continent spreading from the colourful streets of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the impressive Southern Ocean shouldering Cape Town, South Africa, civilians and civil society groups now face a barrage of new government enforced restrictive measures,  thanks to the harsh security measures and legal and policy restrictions developed over the past two years. In Ethiopia, it’s a controversial Charities and Societies Proclamation Act brought into force in early 2009, which denies funding to organisations engaged in human rights advocacy. In Zambia, a law introduced in August 2009, means its government has exclusive power to determine which NGO’s will or won’t operate. In South Africa, the government is trying to push through a protection of Information Bill, which if passed, would give authorities extensive powers to dictate media content.

On the other side of the globe in Canada, a once powerful vibrant and dynamic civil society that used to question global government policy has been all but silenced. Its funding was slashed by the Conservative Party government in a move that has been heavily criticised as the “politics of punishment.”

In the UK, government infiltration on fundamental freedoms is far more obvious. Think G20 summit in 2009, when the globe witnessed the heavy-handed tactics of police on protesters. These ranged from the use of ‘kettling’, whereby large numbers of people – both violent and peaceful protesters as well as those on their way home from work – are herded and then contained en masse, to surveillance and photographing of peaceful groups protesting at E-on power station.

The stories reverberate around the globe; Venezuela, Philippines, Syria, Uzbekhistan, Vietnam, Burundi. Even the media – popularly referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy – is finding it increasingly difficult to report the voice of the people. Global media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, lists a 55 per cent increase in kidnapping of journalists in 2010 compared to the previous year in its annual report. In fact, according to our research, over 90 countries around the globe have observed restrictions being placed on civil society in the past two years. The response from governments; it’s all needed to fight the terrorist march.

Margaret Sekagayya, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, noted in her recent report: “These past few years, the safety of defenders has been increasingly threatened by a growing number of non-State actors in a climate of impunity.” Between 11 December 2008 and 10 December 2009, Sekagayya punched out 266 communications to States in relation to the precarious situations of human rights defenders.

“The information received from various sources and the activities carried out during this year has confirmed the continuous insecurity faced by human rights defenders.”

It’s fair to acknowledge that there are double standards in the laws that are being brought in under the guise of ‘national security’, with particular focus on freedom of speech, protest… After all, these rights are vital for civil society if it’s pertaining to a safe and democratically free world.

None of the excuses curb the ugly truth that if civil society can’t fight for its rights, we are slipping down a very dark tunnel. Governments have recognised that its people matter by simply enforcing measures for national’s security – but what is security without freedom?

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