There has been an alarming shift towards criminalization of peaceful protest and free expression in the UK, according to a UN report. It warned about a growing "Big Brother" culture of state surveillance and suspicion.
The report - which was drawn up before the May 22 suicide bomb attack in Manchester that killed 22 people - said Britain's civil society was a "national treasure" and was at risk from police tactics, anti-terrorism legislation and curbs on charities and trade unions.
The UK's counter-terrorism strategy, known as 'Prevent,' is "inherently flawed," it went on.
The aim of the government's Prevent strategy is to safeguard vulnerable individuals who are at risk of radicalization. It relies on intelligence coming from community leaders.
The Prevent strategy was launched in 2003 and its existence was not publicly acknowledged by the government for several years. The programme was expanded greatly in the wake of the 2005 London bombings.
A key component has been a covert campaign of propaganda aiming to bring about “attitudinal and behavioral change” among young British Muslims, a report in the Guardian newspaper revealed in 2016.
Members of the Muslim community in Manchester attend a vigil for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack
UN reports risks
Written by Maina Kiai - the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly until last month - the report comes 10 days ahead of a general election in which the UK's PM Theresa May is expected to win a majority.
The report covers many policies that were set into operation by May while she was interior minister from 2010 to 2016.
Its release follows October 2016's report by the Open Society Justice Initiative that said the government’s main counter-radicalization policy was "badly flawed, potentially counterproductive and risks trampling on the basic rights of young Muslims."
Demonstrators display placards and banners as they participated in the 2014 Peoples Climate March in London
Civic society under attack
"Overall, it appears that Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it," Kiai wrote.
In November 2016, Britain passed an Investigatory Powers Act which the report attacked as "intrusive powers (that) are bound to have a detrimental impact on the legitimate activities carried out by civil society and political activists, whistle-blowers, organizers and participants of peaceful protests, and many other individuals seeking to exercise their fundamental freedoms."
"Students, activists, and members of faith-based organizations related countless anecdotes of the program being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling, with concomitant effects on the right to freedom of association of some groups," the report noted.
"The specter of 'Big Brother' is so large, in fact, that some families are reportedly afraid of even discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing that their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued."
Britain's security services cast the net far too wide in their hunt for potential terrorists, the report said.
A spokesman at the interior ministry declined to comment, Reuters reported.
MI5 formally launched an internal investigation on Monday to review whether it should have paid more attention to warnings about the behavior of Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 22 people last week in the attack in Manchester.