UN representative criticises Prevent duty for impacting racial equality in the UK


The UN special rapporteur on racism, Professor Tendayi Achiume, has said that Brexit has contributed to an environment of increased “explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance”, identifying a range of institutional prejudices that work against ethnic minorities in Britain, including some extreme views which have gained ground in mainstream political parties on the left and right.

Professor Achiume said, “The environment leading up to the referendum, the environment during the referendum, and the environment after the referendum has made racial and ethnic minorities more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance”.

“The discourses on racial equality before, during and after the 2016 referendum, as well as the policies and practices upon which the Brexit debate has conferred legitimacy, raise serious issues at the core of my mandate … Many with whom I consulted highlighted the growth in volume and acceptability of xenophobic discourses on migration, and on foreign nationals including refugees in social and print media”.

“The harsh reality is race, ethnicity, religion[,] gender, disability status and related categories all continue to determine the life chances and wellbeing of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable and in many cases, unlawful”.

However, Professor Achiume also identified institutional prejudices in the UK, which have been targeting ethnic minorities and religious groups since before the EU referendum. Among these are “hostile environment” immigration policies (which include the Windrush scandal), the disproportionate criminalisation of black people, and the “sustained and pervasive” vilification of Muslims via Prevent, the UK government’s counter-radicalisation strategy.

On the issue of Prevent, she stated, “Widespread enforcement of the Prevent duty is fuelling distrust among racial ethnic minority communities, especially those who are Muslims”, saying, “at the very least [the government should] suspend the Prevent duty and implement a comprehensive audit of its impact on the racial equality of this country and on the political social and economic exclusion on racial and ethnic minorities especially within Muslim communities”[1].

In particular, Professor Achiume criticised the way in which the duty makes “teachers, professors, nurses, and doctors … the frontline agents of countering extremism”, stating, “The concern … is the policy choice embodied in the Prevent programme, which mandates civil servants, social workers, care-givers, educators and others, to make life-altering judgments on the basis of vague criteria in a climate of national anxieties that scapegoat entire religious, racial and ethnic groups as the presumptive enemy”.

She also expressed alarm at the increase in hate crime since the referendum, which has been documented as including a rise in Islamophobia.

Her full report on her findings and conclusions will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2019. Her comments have been received very positively by those working in ethnic minority advocacy.

In response to Professor Achiume’s findings, the UK government said, “We note that the special rapporteur commended UK legislation and policy to tackle direct and indirect racial discrimination, and that in her end of mission statement she welcomed the Race Disparity Audit as ‘a remarkable step towards transforming formal commitments to racial equality into reality’ … We have made great progress, but the prime minister is clear that if there is no rational explanation for ethnic disparities, then we – as a society – must take action to change them, that is precisely what we will do”.

However, a government source has suggested that the government is not happy with Professor Achiume’s criticism of Prevent which they view as not being representative of the reality of Prevent on the ground. It views Prevent as vital to tackling Islamist and far-right terrorism and deny that it targets a particular group.

In 2016, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly also criticised the Prevent duty for “dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population”[2]. Professor Achiume’s criticism of the Prevent duty comes just as academics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and members of the unions UCU and UNISON, signed a statement urging the SOAS Board of Trustees to vote down the implementation of Prevent strategies at the university over concerns they could restrict opportunities for dialogue and discussion, which could result in the demonization, stigmatisation, and marginalisation of minority communities[3].

Prevent and other related measures implemented by the UK government, including measures in schools and the establishment of the Commission for Countering Extremism, have been suggested as unfairly targeting the Muslim community. Professor Achiume’s comments on the duty therefore add to an already well-established criticism of UK counter-extremism/radicalisation/terrorism policy. Given that her criticism comes in the capacity of that made by the UN, it will be interesting to observe whether or not the UK government are inclined to take her comments on the Prevent duty more seriously when they are presented at the Human Rights Council in 2019.

[1] Gayle, 2018; Hope, 2018.

[2] Gayle, 2016.

[3] MEND, 2018.

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Gayle, D. (2016) ‘Prevent strategy ‘could end up promoting extremism’’. [online] 21 April. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/21/government-prevent-strategy-promoting-extremism-maina-kiai. [Accessed 23 May 2018].

Gayle, D. (2018) ‘UK has seen ‘Brexit-related’ growth in racism, says UN representative’. [online] 11 May. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/may/11/uk-has-seen-brexit-related-growth-in-racism-says-un-representative. [Accessed 23 May 2018].

Hope, C. (2018) ‘Britain’s policies on austerity, immigration and terrorism are racist, says UN inspector’. [online] 11 May. https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/britains-policies-on-austerity-immigration-and-terrorism-are-racist-says-un-inspector/ar-AAx8zhK. [Accessed 23 May 2018].

MEND. (2018) ‘SOAS fights against implementation of PREVENT+ regulations’. [online] 16 May. https://mend.org.uk/news/soas-fights-implementation-prevent-regulations/. [Accessed 23 May 2018].