Dear Prime Minister,
You take on your new role as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at a time of profound uncertainty and deep democratic crisis across the globe.
It is vital that, at this time of crisis, the UK plays a leading role in ensuring fundamental values are upheld and promoted. The time to act is now.
The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of championing democratic values. It was Winston Churchill who, in the aftermath of the Second World War, was one of the main advocates for the establishment of the Council of Europe to promote democracy, rule of law and human rights across the continent.
The European Convention on Human Rights, large parts of which were drafted by British lawyers, has been a pioneering step for human rights law, paving the way for the establishment of other regional instruments and strengthening the rights protections for millions of people around the world.
More recently, the UK stood up for democratic values by helping the people of Hong Kong as their civil and political rights were eroded; by imposing sanctions on individuals responsible for atrocities in Myanmar; and supporting Ukrainian democracy in the face of Russia’s aggression. This commitment is also evidenced by the UK taking a leadership role in a number of international initiatives, such as the Equal Rights Coalition and the Media Freedom Coalition.
This is a legacy the UK can be proud of. But this legacy is under threat.
Right now, a number of proposals going through the legislative process threaten to undermine freedom of expression, the cornerstone of democracy. Not only that: if passed, they risk jeopardising the UK’s position as a champion of democracy internationally.
As you take on your new role, we urge you to consider steps to ensure the UK lives up to its proud democratic tradition.
Maintain Churchill’s legacy
The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) incorporated into the UK law the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which was forged out of Churchill’s post-war goal of safeguarding democracies. The Government’s proposal to replace it with a Bill of Rights will have disastrous consequences for human rights in the UK.
The Government claims that replacing the HRA will strengthen freedom of expression. However, the HRA already is a powerful tool for protecting free expression and has helped develop UK law in a number of important areas, including through enhancing protections against unjust application of defamation laws, increasing protection of journalistic sources and material, and strengthening the right to protest. The Bill as introduced would eliminate many of the key provisions that made these developments possible.
Adoption of the proposed Bill of Rights would not only erode rights in the UK – it will also inevitably weaken the country’s role as an advocate for international human rights around the world. Suggestions from your predecessor, Boris Johnson, that the UK could abandon the European Convention on Human Rights play directly into the hands of authoritarians, who can point to the UK as a justification for distancing themselves from international human rights mechanisms. As the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, warned, the UK’s weakening human rights protection ‘sends the wrong signal … at a time when human rights are under pressure throughout Europe’.
Protect the right to protest
The right to protest is closely linked to the right to freedom of expression. Recognised as central to an open society, it enables each of us to participate in public life and express political opinions. The criminalisation of protest therefore stands in direct contradiction to the ideals of a democratic society.
And yet, this is what is happening in the UK at the moment. The recently passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, strike at the heart of the right to protest. By using the language of nuisance and disruption and criminalising direct action, making it illegal for people to obstruct access or chain themselves to buildings, tactics that date back to the suffragette movement, the Public Order Bill attacks the fundamental ways in which people highlight injustice and participate in public life.
Around the world, people who take to the streets often risk their lives. Instead of fearing and silencing protests, liberal democracies like the UK should be leading the way in demonstrating how the right to protest can be facilitated and protected.
Strengthen protection of free speech online
Big Tech has fundamentally changed the world, too often without proper oversight or accountability. It is clear the current system fails to protect human rights and too often leads to silencing and marginalisation of voices.
The Online Safety Bill, still on the cards for the next Government, will not address those challenges – in fact, it risks restricting freedom of expression online even further. Its provision regarding ‘legal but harmful’ content will incentivise companies to censor and take dangerous decisions when it comes to removing or restricting content, basing policies on fear and caution rather than rigorous expertise. As a result, the Bill will give platforms more, not less, control over our speech and interactions online.
ARTICLE 19 has long argued that any legislation aimed at reigning in Big Tech should first and foremost address the exploitative business model under which these companies operate. The UK is uniquely placed to pioneer legislation that puts forward solutions which can curb the excessive market power of huge companies and disrupt their dominant position – leading to more choice and freedom for everyone.
Protect journalists from legal harassment
In recent years, the UK has taken important steps to increase protection of journalists domestically, as well as abroad, through initiatives such as the National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists and the country’s leadership in the Media Freedom Coalition.
We also welcome the government’s recent focus on the issue of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). The practice, where rich and powerful continue to threaten public watchdogs with lengthy and costly lawsuits, has proliferated globally in recent years. The UK has been a place of particular concern, as powerful individuals abuse the country’s legal system to intimidate journalists across the world.
The Government’s launch of a public consultation on tackling the issue of SLAPPs is a step in the right direction. We hope that this work will continue as a matter of priority and that your Government will adopt a comprehensive anti-SLAPP law to ensure journalists and other watchdogs are protected against vexatious lawsuits.
At the same time, we remain seriously concerned by the Government’s determination to extradite Julian Assange to the United States. The move stands in stark contrast with the UK’s commitment to media freedom, and sends a worrying message to the world, that journalists, activists and anyone who exposes truths about crimes do not deserve protection for their rights to share information and speak freely. We urge your Government to reverse the extradition decision.
Prime Minister, your new role is an opportunity to lead the United Kingdom at a pivotal time, when the decisions you and your Government make will have a profound impact on people’s lives, not only in the UK, but across the globe. We urge you to put key fundamental rights at the centre of your agenda, and to reinstate democratic values as the driving force behind your policies.
The United Kingdom is ranked 35 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.