U.N. Slams U.K.'s 'Big Brother' Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy

17/03/2016_Lowe_British Muslims
A Muslim woman pushes a buggy under a railway bridge in London, March 17. Stefan Wermuth /Reuters

A top U.N. official has slammed a British government counter-extremism programme, warning that the state is perceived by some as acting like "big brother."

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Of Association Maina Kiai said following an official visit to the U.K. that the Prevent strategy, a government plan to stop people at risk of extremism from becoming radicalized first published in 2011, "is having the opposite of its intended effect."

"By dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population," Kiai said, "Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.

"The feedback from civil society on the impact of the Prevent strategy was overwhelmingly negative," he added "Students, activists, and members of faith-based organizations related countless anecdotes of the program being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling."

Kiai said that a particularly concerning effect of Prevent was that it stifled debate by creating "unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public."

"The specter of Big Brother is so large," he said, "that I was informed that some families are afraid of even discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing that their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued."

Several aspects of the strategy have provoked controversy in recent years. In particular, the requirement placed on teachers and some other people in charge of children to identify and report pupils thought to be at risk of radicalization has, in the view of teaching union the NUT, inhibited discussion. Both the union and David Anderson, the government's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, have called for a review of the strategy.

A spokesperson for Britain's Home Office said: "Prevent is about safeguarding people who are at risk of radicalisation, and protects those being targeted by extremists and terrorist recruiters. It deals with all forms of extremism, including those at risk from far-right and Neo-nazi extremism, as well as those vulnerable to Islamist extremism.

"This is challenging but absolutely necessary work. Currently the greatest threat comes from terrorist recruiters inspired by Daesh [the Islamic State militant group]. Our Prevent programme will necessarily reflect this by prioritising support for vulnerable individuals, and working in partnership with British Muslim communities and civil society groups."