First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP
5 Charlotte Square
4 November 2021
Dear First Minister
We are writing to express our deep concern about policing around the UNFCCC COP26 summit currently taking place in Glasgow.
As world nations gather to negotiate a way forward through the existential threat of the climate emergency, Glasgow residents, and civil society from across Scotland, the UK and the globe are taking to the streets to sound the alarm, as is their fundamental human right. However, despite assurances from Police Scotland that their approach to peaceful protest at COP26 would be ‘rights-based’, only 4 days into the summit reports suggest that policing has been heavy-handed and highly disproportionate.
Police are using the controversial tactic of ‘kettling’: holding protesters in uncomfortable and potentially dangerous conditions. In one incident, a large group of people, including members of the public, journalists, and legal observers, were detained in close quarters that made social distancing impossible, and in the cold without access to food or water, for several hours. At least two people in the crowd suffered panic attacks, and yet police still refused to allow them to leave the kettle. Some protesters reported that they were told they could not leave to access medical assistance or to use the toilet, and that after many hours, and with police refusing to provide any information on how long they would be held, some had no choice but to urinate in public.
Numerous reports have reached us of police misusing their powers in individual interactions with protesters. For example, when the ‘Rail to the COP’ arrived in Glasgow, with young activists from all over the world, some campaigners holding a banner were threatened with arrest only for holding the banner. Stop and search powers are being abused with protesters being given no explanation of why they are being targeted for search, nor provided with written receipts. In some instances, officers are unlawfully refusing to provide receipts for stop and search unless activists provide personal contact details. When one protester refused to give their personal details to the police, the officers accused them of stealing their own bank card after refusing to show ID and then confiscated their card.
The disproportionately high number of officers deployed, combined with intrusive police surveillance has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Police are reportedly filming campaigners, listening in to conversations, unlawfully demanding personal details, and even on one occasion followed a group all the way to accommodation in Edinburgh, even when there was clearly no protest taking place. One campaigner was stopped for ‘talking to people and walking too fast’, another for ‘acting surreptitiously’.
In advance of the summit, Police Scotland mounted a huge PR campaign promising a ‘human rights based approach’ to the policing of the protests, and yet the policing operation we have seen has led to an atmosphere in which people are afraid to simply unfurl banners, march and chant, creating an unacceptable chilling effect on the right to protest.
Facilitation of peaceful protest on the behalf of the police requires proper transparency around policing plans and tactics used. Based on early reports, a sample of which has been outlined above, there are serious questions to answer about the choices made by senior officers on the ground, and a clear lack of a proper rights-based framework to assess the proportionality of the response. We note that the ECHR ruling in Austin vs Baillie  ECHR 459 states that police should not use a kettle to ‘directly or indirectly stifle or discourage protest’, yet reports suggest that is exactly what is happening here in Glasgow.
The police have a positive and overriding legal obligation to protect the Article 10 and Article 11 rights of those who are protesting about the climate crisis at COP26 this week. To meet these obligations, there must be a clear commitment from senior officers and politicians to translate these vital and hard-won human rights principles into a tactical approach on the ground that can fulfill them.
The rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression are not trivial principles that officers can choose to ignore. They are cornerstones of our democracy and have laid the foundations for countless movements that have changed history and won many of the rights and freedoms that we take for granted today.
People in Scotland have been part of a long and proud tradition of peaceful protest stretching from the Glasgow rent strikes to the Faslane Peace Camp to the Kenmure Street protests. The Scottish Government must positively recognise and cherish the vital role that protest plays in tackling issues like the climate crisis at this critical moment. This recognition means taking concrete steps to ensure protesters safety and welfare and to ensure that the police properly uphold their role as a facilitator of demonstrations over the coming week.
Time and time again civil rights groups have urged for the police to take greater steps to fulfil their obligations under the ECHR. Amnesty has said it ‘strongly recommends’ all those involved in protest policing consider the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) charter for freedom of assembly rights, which draws on existing human rights law to set out a comprehensive set of standards. This framework was put before the independent advisory group (IAG) on COP26 policing in the months ahead of the summit.
As the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice on Saturday 6th November fast approaches, and we anticipate large numbers of protesters taking to the streets of Glasgow, we are asking you to ensure that all police forces operating in Scotland for the duration of COP26 commit to, and be held to, a set of truly rights-based principles. Following Netpol’s Charter, this must include:
- Protection – not increased restrictions – for the right to protest. Direct action and civil disobedience must not be used as an excuse to shut down protests completely. ‘Kettling’ must not be used as a response to protest.
- No routine surveillance of protesters: there must be strict limitations on the use of police video recording, use of facial recognition, and surveillance of social media sites used by campaigners.
- No excessive use of force or targeting of organisers for arrest, surveillance and punishment. People of colour in particular have often disproportionately faced excessive and violent interventions by police.
- No targeting of the most vulnerable: the police have a particular duty to protect the rights of young people, vulnerable and disabled people wishing to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly.
- No abuse of stop and search powers: police must explain for what reason and under what power they are exercising stop and search, and must provide written receipts.
We would be happy to meet to discuss our concerns further.
We look forward to your swift response.
Mary Church, Friends of the Earth Scotland, on behalf of the COP26 Coalition
Alistair Dutton, Chief Executive, SCIAF on behalf of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland Coalition
Ben Margolis, Interim Director The Climate Coalition