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A human rights approach to policing protest

23 April 2009

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Category: Antivivisection & extremism

report.jpgA report Demonstrating respect for rights? A human rights approach to policing protest was published by the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights last month. It reviewed the large number of well-publicised protests in recent years, including those against military action in Iraq, both for and against the banning of hunting with dogs, for and against animal experimentation, and in relation to climate change. It was the Seventh Report of the Joint Committee.

The committee is appointed by the House of Lords and the House of Commons to consider matters relating to human rights in the UK. The committee's brief was to consider the balance struck in law and in practice between the rights of the different groups involved in peaceful protest, and to make recommendations aimed at ensuring that the rights to freedom of assembly and expression are fully respected. 

It called for evidence on the following issues:

  • the proportionality of legislative measures to restrict protest or peaceful assembly
  • existing powers available to the police and their use in practice
  • reconciling competing interests of public order and protest

In its summary, the committee found that the Government should protect and facilitate the opportunity for people to protest peacefully. Failure to do so would jeopardise a number of human rights including the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. It found no systematic human rights abuses in the policing of protest but had some concerns, which could be addressed by legal and operational changes. 

Understanding Animal Research evidence
Over 70 individuals and organisations submitted evidence (see Volume II, Oral and Written Evidence) to the Committee, including Understanding Animal Research. Our evidence looked at the nature of animal rights protests, and extremist activity. Our submission welcomed the inquiry and agreed that the right to protest is a fundamental feature of a democratic society. 

In our view the nature of animal rights extremism is to halt legitimate research involving the use of animals in biomedical and scientific research. Their campaigns combine a mixture of illegal and legal activities, spanning the spectrum from annoying to disruptive to dangerous. The multi-faceted character of extremist campaigns is what makes them potentially different to other protest campaigns. 

When legal and illegal activities are different facets of the same campaign this adds up to a form of protest that consciously blurs the distinction between legal and illegal activities and often merges seamlessly into outright criminality. Taken together these add up to unusual forms of campaigning. 

We affirmed strongly the right to legal protest. However, we believe that many of the tactics of animal rights extremists have gone beyond legitimacy. Some types of protest have subsequently been criminalised through civil injunctions. We consider that this has in general been justified and proportional, taking into account the unusual nature of animal rights extremist campaigns and their often insidious, frequently unpleasant, and occasionally violent character. 

We consider that it is inevitable that sometimes judgment must be used about what is legitimate and acceptable protest, and what oversteps the mark. Such judgments have been taken by a wide variety of different High Court judges, for example in the many different injunctions against animal rights extremist groups across the country. The award of such injunctions has often been the result of court cases lasting many weeks or even months. Injunctions could therefore be said to have withstood the test of time and intense scrutiny. We have repeatedly called for tougher measures to tackle animal rights extremism from Government.  

We emphasised our strong support the work that the Government and all the law enforcement agencies have now taken to combat such extremism.