The British government's counter-extremism strategy "could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it", a United Nation's special investigator has warned.
In a statement released on Thursday, Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said the feedback he had received on the UK's controversial Prevent programme was "overwhelmingly negative".
Under the Prevent duty, teachers, hospital officials, professors and local authorities are obliged to report individuals they think are vulnerable to radicalisation.
But Kiai said there the lack of narrow, explicit of definition of non-violent extremism, "combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public".
He continued: "I heard reports of teachers being reported for innocuous comments in class, for example. The spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, that I was informed that some families are 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."
Kiai released the statement at the end of a four-day visit to the UK, following up on an earlier visit in 2013. Although he praised the government's strong commitment to human rights, he was sharply critical of the Prevent strategy.
He said: "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 also voiced concern about the government's plans to use the Prevent strategy as the basis for counter-extremism legislation, urging ministers to "carefully consider the negative unintended consequences" of such measures.
"It is difficult to define the term 'non-violent extremist' without treading into the territory of policing thought and opinion," Kiai said. "Innocent individuals will be targeted Many more will fear that they may be targeted – whether because of their skin colour, religion or political persuasion – and be fearful of exercising their rights. Both outcomes are unacceptable."
David Cameron has consistently defended the Prevent duty. In June last year he said that he did not agree with Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah, who in the wake of last year's Tunisia attacks, asked the prime minister whether Prevent was "failing in its attempt to engage".
Responding to Kiai's comments, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Prevent is about safeguarding people who are at risk of radicalisation, and protects those being targeted by extremists and terrorist recruiters. It deals with all forms of extremism, including those at risk from far-right and Neo-nazi extremism, as well as those vulnerable to Islamist extremism.
“This is challenging but absolutely necessary work. Currently the greatest threat comes from terrorist recruiters inspired by Daesh. Our Prevent programme will necessarily reflect this by prioritising support for vulnerable individuals, and working in partnership with British Muslim communities and civil society groups.”