As a part of CONTEST, the Prevent program aims to stop people from embracing different forms of extremism that may lead to terrorism in the UK. The Prevent program targets lawful activity such as thought, expression and behavior to predict future criminal activity. In 2015, the UK drafted its public sector to carry out the “Prevent Duty.” Teachers, doctors, therapists, and other professionals in these institutions are legally obligated to carry out national security duties by referring individuals to Prevent and adhering to “British values.” Prevent has had some criticisms in the past and continues to raise significant concerns in determining the signs of radicalization and who is thought to be radicalized.
According to a report by Rights & Security International and another report by Child Rights International Network, Prevents´ counter-terrorism measures are leading to self-censorship among political activists and students in educational settings, especially if they are Muslim. Both organizations have reported observing an effect known as the “chilling effect,” which describes the byproduct of regulations in deterring people from exercising their rights. These groups self-censor from fear of attracting the attention of authorities, being subjected to extensive surveillance, or being subjected to harsher measures, such as arrest.
The UK national curriculum for secondary education states that schools should use citizenship education to “provide pupils with knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society” through “equipping pupils with the skills and knowledge to explore political and social issues critically, to weigh evidence, debate and make reasoned arguments.” With the awareness that their behavior is monitored, students are more reluctant to express themselves in certain forms of expression that are seen as indicators of “radicalization” or “extremism,” like religious expression, particularly if they are Muslim, political activism, as well as discussion and debating terrorism as a political and social issue.
One peace activist from the report by Rights & Security International regularly attends schools throughout the UK to engage with students in citizen education. He observed the awareness among school leaders is producing a risk aversion when it comes to hosting debates on wider topics unrelated to terrorism.
In recent years there has been a higher proportion of Prevent referrals for far-right rather than Islamist related extremism; however, both reports suggest there is an over reporting of Muslims. Referrals for Islamist-related concerns are less likely to be assessed as requiring a Channel intervention than referrals for far-right extremism. One interviewee from the Rights & Security International report argues right-wing extremists are not treated with the same urgency since they target ethnic minorities who, by virtue of their minority status, are not considered to be representative of the UK. Imagining a “Muslim threat” through radicalized assumptions is presumed to be a threat to western democratic values, whereas far-right extremists are considered to threaten only individuals and community cohesion.
Prevent focuses on monitoring activities, views, and behavior of individuals instead of uncovering the underlying causes and conditions conducive to an individual’s exploitation by extremist groups. According to the Neuchâtel Memorandum, the leading international standard on criminal justice and children in the context of counter terrorism, prevention strategies should focus on “key structural and societal factors” which renders children vulnerable to exploitation such as exclusion and discrimination, lack of access to education, domestic violence, lack of social relations, poor economic background, and unemployment.
State institutions should be willing to engage with nonviolent activists and civil society groups. Civic actors play a significant role in countering violent narratives by creating spaces for frustrated individuals to vent their grievances as well as a chance to challenge state injustices through nonviolent approaches. Allowing freedom of expression and enabling democratic spaces can make unknown issues visible and innovate potential solutions.
Finally, Prevent needs to reconsider its approach to human rights. In democratic societies, nonviolent individuals or organizations have the right to question, challenge, oppose, or support specific counter-terrorism laws, practices or policies. The Prevent program lacks proportionality, undermining human rights and the rule of law. The program may believe it is protecting the rights and safety for all but fails to realize it creates an environment of mistrust and misunderstanding, feelings vulnerable to exploitation by those who Prevent sought to protect against.
Camille Amberger, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow
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