Five months after the end of the United Nations COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November 2021, both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority have now simultaneously provided an official response to ‘Respect or Repression?’, the independent report produced by the Article 11 Trust and Netpol on the policing of the event.
The response from Police Scotland
In a letter dated 23rd March 2022 from Assistant Chief Constable Emma Bond, Police Scotland has asserted that it is a “rights-based organisation with Integrity, Fairness and Respect as its core values” and that “as part of the strategic intention, the right to protest as enshrined in Human Rights legislation was fundamental to the planning and delivery of the policing of the conference and associated events, while balancing this with the rights of the wider community”.
What the letter strongly indicates, however, is that only tests of whether these core values were applied in Glasgow last November was the number of complaints, arrests and injuries – not the way police powers were used and the impact this had on campaigners’ rights.
ACC Bond has rejected evidence that a number of concerning incidents of repressive, excessive or violent policing were coupled with potentially misleading public statements from her force that it had ‘facilitated’ protesters wanting to demonstrate.
For example, our report highlights how on the 3rd November 2021, a statement from Bond’s colleague Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie had claimed: “we have facilitated a number of protests in Glasgow today and engaged with protest groups as they moved through the city centre. A group was contained for a short period in the St Vincent Street and Renfield Street area”.
However, front line testimony from over 100 members of the public and detailed contemporaneous notes from 16 legal observers described how demonstrators were kettled against their will for far more than a short period but instead for nearly five hours. They were refused exit to use toilets, to access medication or appropriate clothing, and were forced to urinate in the street.
Instead, ACC Bond insists that only 27 complaints had been made relating to the whole of the conference and that as a result:
“Police Scotland is satisfied when assessed against the Policing of similar events in other jurisdictions, the low number of arrests, and the broader absence of any substantial violence, damage within the city, or injuries – the overall operation tone and stance for COP26 was appropriate and proportionate.”
Bond makes it clear that Police Scotland is unwilling to consider anything other than formal complaints, despite the obvious fact potential complainants may come from all over the world and that many campaigners have had negative experiences of the frustrating slowness and obstructiveness of the complaints system. This attitude is also a rejection of any kind of scrutiny of public order policing by civil society organisations, despite the vital role such organisations play at United Nations conferences.
No human rights benchmark
Despite claiming that the policing operation was “rights-based”, it is unclear what benchmark – if any – was used as measurement of the successes Bond insists Police Scotland achieved in ensuring “a significant amount of protest activity was facilitated throughout the period of the event.”
Bond’s letter appears to imply that apart from the absolute number of complaints, the only other measure of how well Police Scotland believes it both facilitated and protected the right to freedom of assembly was that “only a very small number of arrests were required to be made during the conference” and that “no serious injuries [were] recorded as a result of protest activity, either to members of the public or police officers.”
This is an extremely limited test of whether Police Scotland met its international human rights obligations and does not consider the way extensive police powers were used, or how they may have contributed to actively restricting demonstrators’ fundamental rights.
Our partners from Netpol warned of the risk that human rights would become an afterthought and called on Police Scotland to instead use its Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights to prove that senior officers were serious about their legal obligations.
Unfortunately, Bond’s letter strongly indicates that these warnings were ignored.