Imposing time and noise limits on protests could potentially have a significant impact on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, Europe’s human rights chief said.
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said on July 5 that she has written to UK lawmakers from both houses of Parliament, urging them to reject the provisions in a bill that would impose new limits on protests.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, which covers a wide range of issues, would give police new powers to “impose conditions on protests that are noisy enough to cause ‘intimidation or harassment’ or ‘serious unease, alarm, or distress’ to bystanders,” including one-person protests.
The provisions are a response to several disruptive Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests that caused road closures, disruption of newspaper printing, and vandalism of statues last year, but critics worry that the broad rules would give police discretion to restrict any protests.
In her letter (pdf) to UK lawmakers on July 1, Mijatović said that since protests are often inherently disruptive, she fully shares the concerns of international and domestic actors that the provisions in the legislation are “often broadly formulated and thus risk being arbitrarily applied.”
The provisions may be in conflict with Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights, requesting that any interferences with the rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly be lawful, necessary, and proportionate, Mijatović noted.
The human rights chief said that she has “increasingly had to address instances in which Council of Europe member states have tried to introduce restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, often implicitly driven by the desire of governments to minimise the possibility of dissent” since taking office.
“I am seriously concerned that, if the above-mentioned provisions were to be adopted, the UK would add to this worrying trend,” the letter reads.
She urged UK lawmakers to reject these provisions, stating that the government should instead focus on facilitating peaceful demonstrations, “even when these cause a certain level of disruption to ordinary life or express controversial views.”
Mijatović also took issue with another provision of the measure, this one concerning the criminalisation of trespass in relation to unauthorised encampments.
The provisions would lower the threshold at which the existing police powers associated with unauthorised encampments can be used, and would allow the police to remove unauthorised encampments on—or partly on—highways, as well as prohibit unauthorised encampments moved from a site from returning within twelve months.
Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights said on July 2 that although the bill would protect the human rights of landowners, there’s “a significant risk” that it could disproportionately impact the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities.
Mijatović said the bill would exacerbate the marginalisation of these nomad communities, which are “often already in a very marginalised position.”
The new bill has ignited a number of “Kill the Bill” protests since its second reading in mid-March. One of them turned violent.
The legislation is due to complete its remaining stages in the House of Commons on July 5. There are also a number of new amendments (pdf) to be voted on, including two contentious amendments on abortion.
One amendment proposes a “buffer zone” at abortion clinics, making it illegal to influence the decisions of abortion within 150 meters (yards) of the clinics. Offenders could be fined or imprisoned for up to six months on the first offence, and up to two years on further instances.
Another amendment seeks to repeal the Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Pro-life campaigner RightToLife has argued the amendment is, in effect, introducing “abortion on demand, for any reason, up to birth.”