What are civil liberties?

What are civil liberties and how are they affected by the coronavirus pandemic?
By Rosemary Harris    |      Published:  28 May 2020    |      6 minute read

Civil liberties are rights and freedoms given to residents and citizens of a country through the country’s legal system. These include things like Freedom of speech, Freedom of assembly – which are both currently under attack by the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – and Freedom of religious worship. For example, the Equality Act (2010) in the UK protects our civil liberties by preventing us from discrimination based on age, race, gender, sexuality, disability and other factors. This essentially means that we all have the right to live a safe life, free from harassment based on who we are.

People living in democratic countries and societies are usually entitled to many more civil liberties than those living under dictatorships.

Are civil liberties and human rights the same thing?

Not quite! Human rights are fundamental rights considered to be universal to all people, whereas civil liberties are the rights and freedoms recognised by a particular country. Civil liberties can be seen as something that prevent interference with your human rights.

In the UK your freedom of speech (a human right) is protected in law, which means you can disagree with the government publicly and privately without being arrested. Whereas in an authoritarian regime, everyone still has the human right of free speech, but they don’t have civil liberties to protect them in exercising that right freely, and therefore may be persecuted for speaking out against government.

Are civil liberties the same in every country?

No! While human rights are considered universal, different countries will choose to recognise different civil liberties to a larger or lesser extent. Even in more open countries where basic civil liberties are afforded to all citizens, you’ll still see differences. For example, while same-sex marriage is a universal human right it's still not a civil liberty in every country, and you'll often see campaigns to make same-sex marriage legal (like most recently in Northern Ireland).

In more restrictive countries, people are campaigning (often under dangerous conditions) for basic civil liberties like the right to freedom of speech or the right to protest.

But just because countries are seen as open or liberal, it doesn’t mean that those rights aren't sometimes threatened. For example, in 2019 Friends of the Earth helped defeat Ineos (a multinational petrochemicals company) over an "anti-protest" injunction. We won because the court agreed that the injunction infringed on people’s right to protest (a well-established right in UK law), and the fact that we can challenge these decisions based on our rights under the Human Rights Act is something that we must all fight to protect.

What’s the impact of coronavirus on civil liberties and human rights in the UK?

The impacts of the UK's Coronavirus Act (and other measures to control the spread) on civil liberties have been widespread and varied.

Our civil liberties are not absolute, meaning they can all (apart from freedom from torture) be limited under specific circumstances. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures, and the government’s obligation to protect us means that inevitably some of our freedoms will be restricted. But it's important to recognise that we're currently experiencing an extraordinary suspension of our rights and the greatest restrictions on our freedom ever. While we must be understanding of some of these limitations, it's essential to speak out when we see rights and liberties being restricted in ways we don't believe are necessary or proportionate. Here are 3 ways our rights and liberties are being restricted in incredibly concerning ways in the UK:

  • Impacts on disabled, elderly and other vulnerable members of the community. The new legislation essentially removed the legal responsibility of councils to provide social care to all who are eligible, as well as making it easier to section people in to Mental Health facilities, and concerns have been sparked about cramped and unhygienic conditions in immigration detention centres and prisons. While these measures were introduced to allow councils to focus on coronavirus response, it is a clear and devastating impact on the civil liberties of thousands of people in the UK.
  • Police abuses of power. We've long seen that, when granted extra powers, police will often end up abusing those powers. Under lockdown, police have used leeway and new powers given to them to film and publish footage of people apparently breaking lockdown rules, stopping cars with no justification and threatening to check individuals shopping trolleys. These are all tactics that are significantly more likely to impact BME communities, who are already disproportionately targeted by police forces.
  • Impacts on local democracy and planning decisions. A robust local democracy and the ability of residents to be involved in planning decisions was a crucial part of the campaign to stop fracking. During coronavirus though, the need to hold public meetings for planning applications has been suspended, and decisions are being delegated to council officials (rather than democratically elected councillors) democratically elected councillors are allowed to delegate decisions to officials, meaning decisions have much less public scrutiny. This could mean a number of environmentally damaging plans being approved by unelected officials with no public scrutiny.

The right to protest

The freedom of assembly (essentially the right to gather, which allows us to peacefully protest) has been massively restricted under new coronavirus laws to prevent further spread of the disease. We aren’t yet at a point where we would want large numbers of people meeting and joining a demonstration, but we need to be vigilant and make sure that this freedom is returned as soon as possible.

The right to protest is an essential part of campaigning and must be preserved. It's especially important to keep an eye on how this restriction unfolds, as these particular restrictions come at a time when the government, police and private companies are increasingly cracking down on protest rights. For example, excessive sentencing of peaceful protesters, private injunctions taken out to stop protests, and orders used to stop Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019 (which were later found to be illegal).

Though it’s clear the UK faces some potentially serious restrictions on rights, it's important to recognise that the impacts on countries across the world and within the Friends of the Earth network are huge.

The right to protest is under threat 

The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill poses a serious threat to some of our most fundamental rights such as freedom of assembly - the right to gather, which allows us to peacefully protest - which are vital to any democratic society.  

Our right to protest is under threat. The Bill attempts to seriously limit the right to peaceful protest, increase prison sentences and give police more powers to arrest people for peaceful activities. It also criminalises the lifestyle of Nomadic, Gypsy and Traveller communities and limits access to nature. Find out more about the Bill and the impact it will have on the rights of citizens. 

The impact of coronavirus on civil liberties and human rights around the world

We all hope that the decisions taken by governments and leaders to protect their population in times of crisis are done so in good faith, but sadly that's not always the case. As mentioned, countries with more authoritarian leaders generally have less freedoms afforded to their population, and some leaders are using the pandemic as an opportunity to grab more power and further restrict freedoms.

For example in Hungary, the authoritarian leader President Orban has used the pandemic as a shield to pass emergency laws that give him the power to rule by decree. The laws have no end or review date (in the UK the new laws have to be re-approved by parliament every 6 months) and include jail terms for anyone spreading "misinformation and fake news." This last point is particularly worrying as it clearly curtails freedom of speech, and means that media and opposition figures and members of civil society can be jailed for speaking out against government actions.

The ability of civil society to speak out and protest against governments is an essential freedom, and often one of the first to disappear under more authoritarian leaders. Countries with already troubling track records, from Algeria to China, have been accused of using COVID-19 as an excuse to crack down on civil society "dissenters". It’s important that we stand together with communities around the world suffering massive assaults on their freedoms and abilities to campaign and speak out, and to remember that many of the countries and people most impacted by COVID-19 are also most impacted by climate breakdown.

What we can do right now to protect civil liberties?

  • Read our piece on why the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a harmful piece of legislation and share the open letter asking the government to reconsider the Bill.  
  • Inform ourselves about what is going on here in the UK and around the world and provide solidarity and support when we can. We're highlighting a number of stories from our network that highlight some of the different issues within our network.
  • Know your rights. Remain vigilant to anything that seems to be a disproportionate infringement on our civil liberties here in the UK and in your experiences, and speak to Citizens Advice if you’re concerned.
  • Keep speaking to your local council and stay alert to any planning applications that concern you or are coming down the pipeline. 
  • Find out whether there's a local action group in your area (and join). Local action groups work with local authorities on issues like green space and planning applications, and are a great way of driving community action.