The UK's anti-terrorism strategy, dubbed Prevent, is facing criticism from a UN special rapporteur for "targeting Muslim communities" ahead of a controversial independent review.
Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, said the strategy has had a "negative and discriminatory effect on Muslim communities" and its implementation is "inconsistent" with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
While the effect of the initiative "has not been felt equally by all children," Ni Aolain said, "minority ethnic or religious communities" were impacted in particular.
She said the UN "has a number of concerns about the Prevent strategy" and that she addressed these kinds of government strategies used by the UK and other countries with the organization's Human Rights Council.
Since becoming law in 2011, the strategy has been criticized by equality and rights groups for the challenge that it is believed to pose to liberties and the justice system's foundations.
There have been regular calls for the strategy's removal due to its discriminatory nature against Muslims and because the UK government has failed to provide any evidence that it prevents terrorism.
"In fact, we know of at least 13 people who have gone on to commit terrorist attacks and they were known to Prevent prior to their attacks and Prevent did not stop them," said Layla Aitlhadj, the director of Prevent Watch, a campaign group that supports people affected by the strategy.
Under Prevent, public authorities such as schools, colleges, universities, and health services are ordered to monitor students, patients, and clients for potential signs of radicalization in children as young as four.
Thousands of referrals are made each year, and the highest proportion of Prevent referrals comes from within the education sector.
One such case was that of a 12-year-old who wishes to remain anonymous.
Among several others, she was reported by her school to counter-terrorism police after showing sympathy towards Palestinians.
"An assistant teacher took me out of my lesson and she led me to an empty room with a long table, and there was a policewoman sitting on one end of the table and I was advised to sit on the other end before the teacher walked out and closed the door behind her.
"I was so scared to the point, I was trying to hold in tears," she said, recounting that the policewoman "didn't even explain what was happening and sounded like she was threatening me."
She was told by the officer that she would be taken to the police station for further interrogation. But in the end, the decision was made that they would question her at school.
"I thought it meant I would be going to prison. But overall, it was my first experience face to face with the police at 12 years old," she said.
After the interrogation, she called her father while crying, thinking that he knew what happened.
"I found out I was being put in a room with a police officer with no warning and no explanation without any of my parents' permission," she said.
Her father was equally taken aback by the incident.
"Just imagine the amount of fear, stress and frustration you can go through when as a parent, you receive a call from a police officer telling you that your 12-year-old daughter was interrogated in her school.
"No consent was given by us. No information was given to us. We had no idea about what happened to her," he said.
Prevent, as part of the UK's counter-terrorism strategy, operates in pre-crime space, well before any intention, planning, or preparation for criminal action has ever been committed.
This means that individuals singled out by Prevent have often never even considered committing any such crime.
The logic is that "you can stop somebody at age four or five, when they're just displaying certain ideas or beliefs, because in 10- or 20-years’ time, they may go on to be a terrorist, which is quite an extraordinary claim," said Aitlhadj.
"If anybody came to you and said: 'Oh, I can predict your future,' you would probably laugh them out of the room.
"And yet, the UK government has convinced not only its citizens, but it's convinced other countries around the world that Prevent works and they can essentially predict the future who can go on to commit future crime," she asserted.
Unlike counter-terrorism legislation, there is no independent reviewer with a statutory duty to report on any extensions of the Prevent strategy or problems with its implementation.
The UK government recently came under scrutiny when it appointed William Shawcross, a former chairman of the Charity Commission well-known for his neoconservative views and Islamophobic rhetoric, to chair an independent review of Prevent.
British newspaper The Guardian recently published a leaked draft which exposed Shawcross's plans to state in the landmark Prevent review that the government's counterterrorism program has been too focused on right-wing extremism and should now refocus on what he calls "Islamic terrorism" and "Islamist extremism."
Shawcross believes Prevent is treating "mainstream, right-wing-leaning commentary" as far-right, while what he refers to as "Islamist propaganda" is "being ignored."
Sir Peter Fahy, the former police lead for Prevent, said the review extracts suggested that Shawcross's findings were an unwarranted attempt to "politicize counter-terrorism policing."
Many civil rights organizations, Muslim community groups, and researchers declared a boycott amid Shawcross's new role.
Two leading experts on Prevent, Aitlhadj and John Holmwood, as an alternative to the government’s review, chaired the largest ever study of Prevent, called "The People's Review of Prevent," and have found that it is not preventing terrorism but instead wrongly targeting and traumatizing hundreds of innocent people, some young children.
However, the UK government continues to ignore this criticism, and Shawcross, who was a fellow at Policy Exchange, a UK think tank known for its Islamophobic stances, published a report that was endorsed by former Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting that those who criticize Prevent as a law are enabling terrorism.
"So it's part of how Prevent works. If you criticize it, you too are somehow extreme or enabling terrorism.
"I myself was mentioned over 33 times in that report, and only Muslim organizations and individuals were focused on in that report," Aitlhadj said.
In defense of Prevent, the government recently cited figures for 2021 which showed that less than a quarter of those who have been referred were done so due to what they called "Islamic extremism."
But, Aitlhadj said, this is all part of the government's repackaging of the clearly discriminatory law to convince the public that it targets all forms of extremism.
The reality is that Prevent disproportionally targets Muslims, "as they only make up 5% of the UK population," she added.
Ni Aolain, the UN rapporteur, clarified that public evidence suggests that Prevent "has been primarily used to target minority Muslim communities" and that this issue was not just raised by her mandate but also by the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Tendayi Achiume.
Ni Aolain said the best way to fight terrorism and fight violent extremism was to do so in a way that complies with international law and human rights.
"When we ignore our human rights obligations in doing this work, what we often do, governments often end up doing, is being in a vicious cycle where you reproduce the conditions conducive to violence precisely by alienating communities and those that you most definitely need to be in partnership with," she added./aa