GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) -The U.N. human rights chief called on the British government on Thursday to reverse legislation that would clamp down on protests by giving police in England and Wales more powers to act to prevent serious disruption.
Britain's Conservative government said the new powers are needed to prevent a small minority, who have been protesting mainly over environmental issues, disrupting the lives of the wider public. In recent years, protests have shut down large parts of central London and blocked traffic on highways.
The Public Order Bill, which completed its passage through the UK parliament on Wednesday, has drawn criticism from civil rights groups who said it gives police too much power.
The bill restricts the freedoms of some protesters to stop them causing serious disruption to infrastructure, including airports and railways, and creates a new criminal offence for those who seek to lock themselves to objects or buildings.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said the legislation was "deeply troubling" and that it imposed restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly that are "neither necessary nor proportionate".
Turk said in a statement that the UK police "already have the powers to act against violent and disruptive demonstrations" and called on the government to reverse the legislation.
"I am also concerned that the law appears to target in particular peaceful actions used by those protesting about human rights and environmental issues," Turk said, adding that governments should be protecting peaceful protests on such important issues, "not hindering and blocking them."
The law was incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations, Turk said.
"The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy but we must also protect the law-abiding majority's right to go about their daily lives," a spokesperson for Britain's interior ministry said.
"The Public Order Bill ... will bring in new criminal offences and proper penalties for selfish, guerrilla protest tactics," the spokesperson said.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Kylie MacLellan and Andrew MacAskill; Additional reporting by Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool)