United Kingdom: G7 Summit police confused about duty to protect freedom of assembly

  • Article by Netpol, originally published on 7 June 2021, available here.

Protests against the forthcoming G7 summit, from 11-13 June in Carbis Bay in Cornwall, are expected to face a huge policing operation that includes exclusion zones and around 6500 officers from around the country. A coalition of organisations under the banner “Resist G7” are organising demonstrations on each day of the summit and separately, Extinction Rebellion South West plans a series of actions.

Protest with no impact?

On its G7 website, Devon & Cornwall Police has indicated that it plans to “ensure people can exercise their right to protest legally and safely without impacting upon residents and businesses” [our emphasis].

The police have also said that it “cannot facilitate activity that places protestors, the public, officers or the event at physical risk” and has encouraged local media coverage (see here and here) of its plans to deal with protesters involved in direct action tactics.

However, any assembly that has no impact is hardly worthy of calling itself a protest at all: every public assembly is a means of impacting public opinion. As Netpol’s new Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights makes clear, potential disruption is not an automatic excuse for denying protection for assemblies. Neither is the use of direct action or civil disobedience tactics. The courts have repeatedly made clear that direct action protests, including lock-ons, fall within the scope of the Human Rights Act.

Our Charter draws on international guidelines on freedom of assembly updated last year by a Council of Europe expert panel, the Venice Commission, whose recommendations have been accepted by the British government. It says that,

some degree of disruption… must be tolerated if the essence of the right to peacefully assemble is not to be deprived of any meaning”.

It adds that a protest can be ‘peaceful’ (and thus protected) even if it is ‘unlawful’. In considering what constitutes “physical risk”, Devon & Cornwall Police should consider this advice from the Commission:

the spectrum of conduct that either constitutes ‘violence’, or is regarded as capable of causing ‘violence’, should be narrowly construed, limited in principle to using, or overtly inciting others to use, physical force that inflicts or is intended to inflict injury or serious property damage where such injury or damage is likely to occur”.

The police’s apparent confusion about its positive duty to protect freedom of assembly is precisely why the Charter has been created. With no comprehensive guidance from the National Police Chiefs’ Council on protecting and safeguarding the right to protest, despite years of lobbying by Netpol, forces like Devon & Cornwall Police can interpret their responsibilities as they see fit. Time and again, police forces have shown themselves eager to shut down protests and restrict freedom of assembly.

Protest zones rejected by campaigners

In April, Devon and Cornwall Police announced that designated protest sites had been agreed with local councils. The closest to the summit venue are in Truro and Falmouth, both around 23 miles away, followed by Plymouth (74 miles) and Exeter (a staggering 106 miles away).

Once again, international guidelines on the importance of where protests take place are very clear. The Venice Commission says the positive duty to facilitate and protect the right to freedom of protest includes facilitating assemblies “at the organisers’ preferred location and within ‘sight and sound’ of the intended audience”. None of the proposed sites meet this criteria.

Unsurprisingly, protesters have rejected plans to restrict themselves to official protest zones. On Saturday 12 June, Resists G7’s demonstration is taking place in Hayle, just over 3 miles away from the summit, about as close as possible with the whole of Carbis Bay effectively closed to the public for the duration of the summit. The coalition has also vigorously contested fanciful claims made by Devon & Cornwall Police that the force has been “working with around 30 groups to date to facilitate peaceful and lawful protest”.

Surveillance of organisers

We have received disturbing reports of harassment by the police of anyone suspected of having a role in organising protests. The most high profile of these incidents was a visit by a large number of plain clothed police officers to the home and workshop of the co-founder of Ocean Rebellion, Ron Higgs, who has made a formal complaint about intimidation.

However, we also know that the Rubicund Radical Bookshop in Falmouth, which has been supportive of both Resist G7 and recent Kill The Bill protests, has also been repeatedly visited by police. We are aware too that the G7 policing team have also approached Cornwall Council expressing concerns about one town councillor’s connection with Extinction Rebellion.

If you are a campaigner in Cornwall and hare approached by police over the coming week, please contact us at NetpolAdmin@protonmail.com