News 16th Jun 2021

Open Societies or shut-down protest? Defending open societies begins at home

Susannah Fitzgerald

Network Co-ordinator

Susannah joined Transparency International UK in March 2020 as the UK Anti-Corruption Programme’s Network Co-ordinator. She works to coordinate the advocacy and campaign efforts of key civil society organisations, including the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition. Prior to joining TI-UK, she worked in advocacy and fundraising for a global NGO and completed an MA in International Relations from King’s College London.

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The Open Societies Statement, agreed by the G7 and heads of government from Australia, India, South Africa and the Republic of Korea this weekend, reaffirmed a shared belief in values like human rights, democracy, the right to assemble, freedom of expression, and the importance of civic space.

Promoting these values internationally, and recognising the threat that corruption poses to them, is certainly welcome. But the words of diplomatic communiques need to be backed up with actions at home if they are to carry weight around the world. As it stands, the UK’s domestic priorities risk undermining its own G7 agenda.

 

Do the UK’s actions at home match what it says on the global stage?

Right now, there is a glaring mismatch between what the UK Government signed up to at the G7 and its legislative agenda at home: the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill, first tabled in March 2021, sparked outcry amongst many in civil society and other observers for the threat it poses to civic space.

Of particular concern are measures that would limit the right to protest. These include stopping protests that make noise which may “cause such persons [in the vicinity] to suffer serious unease, alarm, or distress”, and bringing in harsher sentences of up to ten years for causing, or even just risking, “public nuisance.” This loosely defined offence includes causing “serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience, or serious loss of amenity.”

Such vague and expansive wording is wide open to subjective interpretation and possible abuse – a point noted by some Conservative MPs – while also bringing in disproportionate punishments for those who break the rules.

As anti-corruption campaigners, we want UK citizens to be able to hold those in power to account. While the relationship between protest and corruption is a nuanced one, it is clear that protestors and civil society can play a crucial role in putting corruption on the political agenda and driving change in countries around the world. That is precisely why these new powers are so worrying.

 

How do the UK’s proposed reforms compare with other countries?

The changes the UK is proposing are fairly unique amongst G7 countries, even when compared with more authoritarian regimes, having been criticised as “incompliant with international standards” by legal experts.

Analysis by Transparency International found very few examples of other G7 countries listing noise, or other subjective conditions like alarm, distress, annoyance, or inconvenience, as a potential condition for limiting protests. While some legislation had been passed at the state level in the US, many of these also courted controversy – bills that sought to establish similar grounds to limit protest in Arkansas and Maryland were defeated or withdrawn by the sponsor.

The repressive measures taken by the Russian and Chinese states against dissenting citizens are rightly criticised, yet even these countries do not use such vague terms as those listed above in their legislation. If nothing else, this should put into perspective just how misguided these reforms would be, and the risks they pose for those challenging corruption from the street, right around the world.

 

Why does this matter?

Limiting civic space and the right to protest would not only be detrimental for UK citizens, it may also further embolden exactly the kind of repressive regimes that the Open Societies Statement is intended to challenge. Bringing in such stringent and wide-ranging limitations on the right to protest would move the dial on what is considered acceptable, while also undermining the UK’s credibility when it looks to act as ‘a force for good’ on the world stage.

While the Open Societies Statement is welcome, G7 countries like the UK risk the charge of hypocrisy if they fail to live up to these shared values themselves. More importantly, those who hold governments to account around the world may end up paying the highest price.

To avoid this situation, the UK Government should:

 

 

The laws we pass and actions we take in the UK are as much of a signal to other nations, particularly those looking to restrict their citizens' rights, as the statements we sign at international conferences. This is something the UK government can ill afford to forget.