Participation, Protest and Policing at COP26

For two weeks in November, the hopes of the world will focus on the city of Glasgow. World leaders will gather for the UN Climate Change Conference – the Conference of the Parties (COP26) – to forge new commitments addressing the global climate emergency.

The success or failure of the summit will be judged not by the optics of choreographed handshakes or photo opportunities, but by whether summit outcomes deliver a radical upshift in ambition and action to reverse man-made climate change and environmental degradation.

One measure of what the summit achieves will be whether it creates a platform for meaningful participation by those who wish to register their views and make their voices heard. While political negotiations will take place behind closed doors and a security cordon, those outside the conference venue – on the streets surrounding the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) and further afield – will negotiate how public spaces are used to channel and amplify their message.

We want to understand the range of factors that shape the nature of protest events and the dynamics of protester-police interactions. The research aims to contribute to:

  • Understandings of crowds and collective behaviour: It was once believed that individuals, when submerged in a crowd, were freed from social constraints through processes of ‘de-individuation’: crowd members adopted a ‘group mind’ leading them to perform acts otherwise unthinkable. Mass gatherings were thus framed in pathological terms – as inherently volatile and predisposed to violence. These now discredited understandings of crowd behaviour have given way to theories that emphasize instead the importance of social identities, situational dynamics and the mutual interaction between different groups, including the police. The project will document and explore the different experiences of participants in protest events at COP26 to better understand the ways in which shared social identities shape meaningful patterns of behaviour and strategies of mobilization.

  • The interpretation of human rights law in practice: Peaceful protest – inevitably noisy and disruptive – is the hallmark of a functioning democracy. Recent standard setting initiatives on the right of peaceful assembly at the international level (in particular, the UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No 37) and at home (such as Netpol’s Charter of Assembly Rights) affirm core State obligations to facilitate and protect those participating in peaceful assemblies and underscore key benchmarks regarding the proportionality of State interventions (including, but not limited to, surveillance, stop and search, containment, arrest and dispersal). Critical questions nonetheless arise about the parameters of peaceful protest (even if unlawful), what facilitation means in practice to different stakeholders, and how police interventions are assessed in terms of proportionality. We also want to understand how (and to what extent) the law in Scotland serves to frame and structure the interactions between protesters and the State, recognizing too that thousands of police officers from England & Wales and Northern Ireland will also be providing ‘mutual aid’ to Police Scotland and that the laws governing public assemblies in each of these jurisdictions are different.

  • The nature of liaison and the potential role of other stakeholders beyond the police: While voluntary dialogue between protesters and the police can serve to deliver mutual benefits, liaison does not implicitly ‘facilitate’ the exercise of an effective right to protest – and indeed, can sometimes operate to undermine or frustrate it. We hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the kind of dialogue that takes place (what is regarded as negotiable, what challenges arise, what concessions are volunteered or incentivized, what gains or losses result). We also want to explore the potential for other key stakeholders to assist in the facilitation of peaceful protest. In this regard, the work of the Independent Advisory Group to Police Scotland and the Centre for Good Relations will be a key focus.

  • The impact of crowd events on inclusivity and democracy in society: We are interested in not only what happens during COP26, but also the way that events affect people’s general views of the police, of authority in general and their sense of voice within society. For us, protest is not a problem for a democratic society. The noise of protest is the sound of democracy. Moreover, the pre-condition for an inclusive democracy is that all sections of society feel able to participate in mass protests and that their voice will be heard. Accordingly, a further dimension of our research is to examine the impact of COP26 on both participants and non-participants: do they feel less or more alienated from the police?; do they feel that mass protests are spaces in which they are able and willing to participate?; do they have a sense of voice in society?; do they believe that we are living in a healthy democracy? We are particularly interested in the views of marginalised and vulnerable sections of our society.

Our research is conducted by a research team from the Universities of East Anglia, Edinburgh and St. Andrews which combines expertise in law, sociology and social psychology. Bios of the researchers are available on the ‘who we are’ page.

Our funding comes from the Hamburg-based New Institute . This is an independent Institute for Advanced Study and designed as a platform for social change. It aims to bring together researchers, practitioners, policy makers and activists in order to develop visions for radically reconfigured societies able to surmount the key challenges of our times – and, of course, there is no bigger or more urgent challenge than the climate emergency.