Ella Kiley, Research Volunteer, Quilliam International

In 2017, the UK Prevent Strategy prevented 150 people, 50 of which were children, from leaving Britain to join terrorist groups in Syria. It has proved an important and successful scheme to help protect UK citizens from terrorism over the past decade. That same year, a UN report by its Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, commenting well outside his area of expertise, denounced the strategy as ‘inherently flawed.’

The three key objectives of the UK Prevent strategy are: ‘Challenging the ideology that supports terrorism and those who promote it’, ‘Protecting vulnerable people’, and ‘Supporting sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation.’

The heavily critical language of the Special Rapporteur was not backed by sufficient evidence, nor did it suggest an alternative. The first criticism voiced is that the Prevent strategy is destructive to values of human rights and freedom of speech, resulting in having people ‘fearful of exercising their rights’ and thus worsening the situation. However, the Prevent scheme explicitly states a focus on the importance of freedom to debate for countering radicalisation: ‘radicalisation tends to occur in places where terrorist ideologies … go uncontested and are not exposed to free, open, and balanced debate and challenge.’ Rather than squandering freedom of speech, Prevent emphasises the importance of openly challenging extremist ideologies.

The report then suggests that the application of Prevent is ‘arbitrary’, ‘unpredictable’ and therefore ‘inconsistent with the rule of law’ in relation to authorities implementing Prevent, without giving any specific examples or referring to what law is in breach, or suggesting an alternative to the safeguarding. However, the Prevent strategy states the importance of focusing on young people, therefore within schools and higher education, as it states statistically, the majority of terrorists in the UK and abroad are under the age of 30. The Prevent strategy also places emphasis on those who have a background in other forms of crime, and therefore to be aware of offenders in prisons and their vulnerability to radical narratives. The strategy statement therefore clearly identifies the vulnerable and the institutions that need to be supported.

The Special Rapporteur criticises the ‘nearly automatic link between extremism and terrorism’, which flippantly misunderstands Prevent. The Prevent strategy repeatedly states the primary aim to help prevent instances of terrorism in the UK. It also highlights that a separate scheme should be implemented to tackle extremism. Therefore, the Prevent strategy focuses on violent extremism, which may lead to terrorism. Although the two concepts are not mutually exclusive, it is impossible to tackle terrorism without confronting extremism, radicalisation, and ideology. The Prevent strategy challenges ‘ideology which states that violence is an acceptable course of action’, not, as the Special Rapporteur suggests, ‘non-violent extremist groups’.

The report finally criticises Prevent for encouraging racial profiling. This does not match the Prevent statement, which places emphasis on the need to counter all types of terror threats in the UK – extreme right wing, Northern Ireland related, and international terrorism. A single case study provided by the UN report is not sufficient fuel to denounce the entire strategy as ‘inherently flawed’. It would be naive to suggest Prevent is flawless, however, it has proved successful in protecting vulnerable citizens of the UK, and national security. Kiai does not provide an alternative structure, and to back up sweeping statements such as ‘Prevent is having the opposite to its intended effect’, he uses suggestive language such as ‘could’, and ‘may’, with no hard evidence.

The UK Prevent strategy adheres to the first two pillars of the UN counter-terrorism strategy: ‘Addressing the Conditions Conducive to the Spread of Terrorism’, ‘Preventing and Combating Terrorism’, as well as being relevant to the other two, focussing on ‘States’ Capacity’ and ‘Ensuring human rights and the rule of law.’ Thus, the UN should be supporting Prevent, which has influenced many successful counter-terrorism programmes around the world, rather than making ill-informed and irresponsible statements that only play into the hands of extremists and terrorists.