“Imagine the conversation between Bolsonaro and Erdogan”

The United Kingdom is in a period of national mourning, marking the passing of our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Global media has been transfixed, reporting on the minutiae of every aspect of the ascension of the new monarch and the commemoration of our former head of state. While the pageantry has been consuming, the constitutional process addictive (yes I am an addict) and the public grief tangible – the traditions and formalities have also highlighted challenges in British and global society – especially with regards to freedom of expression.

We have witnessed people being arrested for protesting against the monarchy. While the protests could be considered distasteful – I certainly think they are – that doesn’t mean that they are illegal and that the police should move against them. Public protest is a legitimate campaigning tool and is protected in British law. As ever, no one has the right not to be offended. And protest is, by its very nature, disruptive, challenging and typically at odds with the status quo. It is therefore all the more important that the right to peacefully protest is protected.

While I was appalled to see the arrests, I have been heartened in recent days at the almost universal condemnation of the actions of the police and the statements of support for freedom of expression and protest in the UK, from across the political system.

What this chapter has confirmed is that democracies, great and small, need to be constantly vigilant against threats to our core human rights which can so easily be undermined. This week our right to freedom of expression and the right to protest was threatened and the immediate response was a universal defence. Something we should cherish and celebrate because it won’t be long before we need to utilise our collective rights to free speech – again.

Which brings me onto the need to protest and what that can look like, even on the bleakest of days. On Monday, the largest state funeral of my lifetime is being held in London. Over 2,000 dignitaries are expected to attend the funeral of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in Westminster Abbey. The heads of state of Russia, Belarus, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela and Myanmar were not invited given current diplomatic “tensions”. While I completely welcome their exclusion from the global club of acceptability, it does highlight who was deemed acceptable to invite.

Representatives from China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, North Korea and Sri Lanka will all be in attendance, all of whom have shown a complete disregard for some of the core human rights that so many of us hold dear. Can you imagine the conversation between Bolsonaro and Erdogan?  Or the ambassador to Iran and the vice president of China?

While I truly believe that no one should picket a funeral – the very idea is abhorrent to me – that doesn’t mean that there are no other ways of protesting against the actions of repressive regimes and their leadership, who will be in the UK in the coming days. In fact the British Parliament has shown us the way – by banning representatives of the Chinese Communist Party from attending the lying in state of Her Majesty – as a protest at the sanctions currently imposed on British parliamentarians for their exposure of the acts of genocide happening against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. This was absolutely the right thing to do and I applaud the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon Lindsay Hoyle MP, for taking such a stance.

Effective protest needs to be imaginative, relevant and take people with you – highlighting the core values that we share and why others are a threat to them. It can be private or public. It can tell a story or mark a moment. But ultimately successful protests can lead to real change. Even if it takes decades. Which is why we will defend, cherish and promote the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression in every corner of the planet, as a real vehicle for delivering progressive change.

LIVE: Protest and the Royal succession

The death last week of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth, at the age of 96, shocked the nation and others throughout the world. Many would agree with our CEO Ruth Smeeth, who said she was a “formidable leader” and a “stabilising force through many periods of global turmoil”. Many would also take a different stance.

There are worrying indications, however, that those who do not feel the same way about the Queen and her legacy are being silenced, including the arrest of a number of protesters in Edinburgh, one displaying an “Abolish Monarchy” placard, and others being threatened by the police with arrest in London and Oxford.

Asked about the Edinburgh arrests, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Liz Truss, who was only appointed by the Queen days before her death, said: “This is a period of national mourning for the vast majority of the country, but the fundamental right to protest remains the keystone of our democracy.”

The arrests come after a year in which the British government has made changes and called for further changes to many areas of legislation governing the right to protest and freedom of expression.

Her Majesty’s death also comes just months after the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 came into force. This gives the police much greater powers when it comes to restricting protests. Previously protests could only be stopped if they risked “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”. A belief that “public nuisance” may be caused is now sufficient.

Speaking on the arrests in Scotland, Ruth Smeeth, Index on Censorship’s CEO, said: “It is deeply concerning to see the arrests being made. The fundamental right to freedom of expression, including the right to protest, is something to be protected regardless of circumstance.

“These arrests come at a time of national debate around the new Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Act covering England and Wales, legislation that Index raised serious concerns about during its passage through Parliament.

“People across the country and beyond continue to mourn the loss of the Queen, a loss felt keenly by so many. However, we must guard against this event being used, by accident or design, to erode in any way the freedom of expression that citizens of this country enjoy.”

We will use this live blog to draw attention to highlight events that appear to threaten our fundamental right to express views peacefully, whether for or against the monarchy.

“Her Majesty was a formidable head of state”

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth II has died at the age of 96. Photo: Kenroy Ambris/Commonwealth Secretariat/Flickr

Index is definitely not a traditional vehicle to feature an article discussing the British royal family. However, today I am going to abuse my position as chief executive in order to honour the life of one of the most dedicated public servants a democracy has known. A monarch whose efforts from the day she ascended to the throne, until her passing on Thursday afternoon, strove to promote and protect our shared values.

Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II has passed away, at the age of 96, having served on the throne for over 70 years. Whether you are a monarchist or a republican it cannot be denied that Her Majesty was a formidable head of state. A stabilising force through many periods of global turmoil from World War II and the Cold War to the current unsettled world we find ourselves in.

On a personal note, I feel a little shaken today, knowing that the only head of state I have known has gone. May she rest in peace.

The United Kingdom now enters a period of mourning. However Index as a global organisation will continue to campaign for freedom of expression. Ensuring that during a time when the news around the world will be focused on one story the voices of dissidents will continue to be heard.

Dining with despots

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa recently secured an invite to Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee luncheon.

According to the Daily Mail, the Queen invited King Hamad because it “would have been very rude to have left anyone off of the list.” Of course, the Queen would not want to suffer the embarrassment of singling out one despot, so she’s invited them all.

Bahrain’s government has been working overtime to revamp their public image after last year’s brutal crackdown on popular protests left a rather inconvenient stain on its international reputation. While paying lip service to human rights and reform, unfulfilled promises have only brewed tension in what have now become almost daily face-offs between disillusioned protesters and security forces.

It seems that the tiny kingdom does not have time to answer popular demands for reforms, after all, there are air shows to organise and a Grand Prix to hold. The United Kingdom said they would push Bahrain to implement recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI) last November. In light of the country’s deteriorating situation, a friendly invitation to lunch only sends the wrong message, and shows an unwillingness to push where it actually counts.

The royal family is no stranger to controversial invitations. Bahrain’s Crown Prince declined an invitation to the royal wedding last year, and only months before the start of Syria’s violent unrest, a lavish dinner held by the Queen was attended by none other than the father-in-law of the country’s murderous dictator, Bashar Al-Assad.

The Bahraini King’s invitation was not an oversight — the guests at state events are cleared with the Foreign Office, as MP Denis Macshane pointed out yesterday. Invitations to state events only damage the credibility of Ministerial promises to place pressure on repressive regimes.

Bahrain’s violent suppression of protests sparked by last year’s Arab Spring was met with international outrage. Before an external body could step in, King Hamad commissioned the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry to investigate whether or not human rights were violated in the months following the crackdown. The commission was met with scepticism from activists within the country. Still, evidence was gathered and the final report was released in November last year.

The report confirmed many of the violations documented by local activists during the crackdown. At a ceremony held at his palace, King Hamad expressed a commitment to implementing the committee’s recommendations, and called the report a “historic opportunity for Bahrain to deal with matters that are both serious and urgent”. In the months following the report’s release, committees were formed and international experts brought in, including disgraced assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, John Yates. The Bahraini government also enlisted Miami Chief of Police John Timoney to train security forces. Despite the government’s readiness to celebrate its commitment to transparency and human rights, the months following the report’s release have only shown a deteriorating situation. Well-known activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is currently serving a life sentence for his role in protests last year. He has been on hunger strike for over 60 days, and family members fear that he is close to dying. Calls for his release have been ignored, and instead, the government seems to be more concerned with ensuring that the controversial Formula One race go ahead as planned.

The aim here is clear: A slick new Bahrain that only looks like it values human rights in order to repair profitable international relationships.