A landmark report from Amnesty International has detailed how the counter-terrorism strategy Prevent is fundamentally incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations.

While responsibility for national security sits with the UK Government, our research is still a must-read for Scottish ministers. After interviewing more than 50 professionals, including police, legal experts and people directly impacted by Prevent, our findings call for the programme to be scrapped - and warn that it is disproportionately violating the rights of young and minoritised people. We have found Prevent has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and spoken to many people referred for non-violent political beliefs.

Prevent’s simply stated purpose is to "stop people becoming terrorists". While the UK Government does have an obligation to combat terrorism, it has been unable to provide Amnesty with a shred of evidence that the programme is effective in helping to do so. In practice, the Prevent duty forces public sector professionals, including teachers and social workers, to refer ordinary people if they believe someone may be drawn into terrorist activity. Official guidance sanctions the use of "gut feeling" to guide this decision, and the high prevalence of Islamophobic stereotypes associating Muslims with extremism or terrorism have therefore played a major role in referrals to Prevent. A disproportionate number of neurodiverse people and children also feature in referrals.

Those we interviewed described the harmful impacts of a referral, including a loss of trust in the authorities, stress, anxiety and other mental health problems; significant financial costs; and concerns about privacy and data protection.

While responsibility for Counter Terrorism policy sits with Westminster, public authorities responsible for implementing Prevent fall under devolved competencies, such as health and education. There are important differences that make Scotland’s approach to Prevent more nuanced than in England and Wales. For example, Prevent is less clearly integrated into ordinary safeguarding practice.

In 2021-22 there were a not-insignificant 91 referrals in Scotland. As in England and Wales, the largest demographic group represented were 15-20-year-olds. The failure to disaggregate data by ethnicity and religion makes it impossible to fully evaluate the discriminatory impact.

In a paper published in March Professor Charlotte Heath-Kelly of Warwick University warned that Scotland is moving ever closer to the model of implementation in England and Wales, and this summer the Scottish Government published an "evidence review" of extremism in Scotland which made a call for more awareness raising of Prevent among public sector practitioners.

It’s an over-simplification to suggest that because national security is a reserved matter that the Scottish Government can do nothing. Our findings raise serious questions for devolved policy; not least how Police Scotland’s claimed "rights-based approach" can be applied to a programme incompatible with the state’s human rights obligations, and how the implementation of Prevent by devolved bodies will interact with Scottish Government plans to enshrine further UN rights treaties into law. Rather than further legitimising Prevent, the Scottish Government should engage meaningfully with these concerns.

Elizabeth Thomson is Advocacy Manager - Scotland with Amnesty International UK