Seven women psychologically and sexually abused by undercover policemen infiltrating UK protest groups have lodged a complaint to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The women complain that the United Kingdom Government has failed to prevent institutionalised discrimination against women by the police. All the women suffered serious psychological harm through having been deceived into long term intimate relationships with undercover policemen. These intimate relationships involved five different undercover police officers over a period spanning nearly 25 years.
In one of the first complaints of its kind made to the committee, the case stands to trigger a potential investigation and finding against the UK government. The UK is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), under which the case is being brought.
The Metropolitan Police issued an apology to the women in November 2015, but despite this has refused to provide any disclosure or information about the relationships. In addition, the UK government has failed to prosecute or apply any sanctions to any of the officers concerned or their supervisors, and refused to amend UK law to explicitly make such relationships an offence.
“Our central aim in bringing this case is to make sure that these abusive relationships are not allowed to happen again,” says Helen Steel, one of the women behind the case. “The repeated use of women in this way by undercover policemen is a form of discrimination against women and a barrier to women’s rights to participate in protest activity.”
‘Lisa’, another of the petition’s authors, adds, “In signing up to this Convention, the UK has committed itself to work to end discrimination against women. If the committee finds against the UK it will be a huge embarrassment and will shine a spotlight on the institutional sexism in the police and the government’s ongoing failure to outlaw these abusive practices.”
Harriet Wistrich, solicitor for the Applicants, meanwhile, states, “CEDAW has a complaints procedure which is broad in reach, enabling the women to cite gender based violence, gender stereotyping and the impact on reproductive rights, as part of a pattern of institutionalised discrimination by the State in this case.”
The case has been launched to coincide with the 16 days of action called by the United Nations that commenced with International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25th November and culminates in Human Rights Day on 10th December.
What is CEDAW?:
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. A Committee of 23 independent experts on women’s rights from around the world monitors the implementation of CEDAW. The UK ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW in 2004. This enables individuals who have been subjected to discrimination under the convention and exhausted all domestic remedies to make complaints. However, since ratification, only three complaints have been made to the CEDAW committee and all have been held to be inadmissible.
Summary of the petition to the UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
1. The individuals named in the communication were, at the relevant times, all involved as activists and/ or associated through friendship networks with political groupings organised around issues of environmental and/or social justice campaigns. They were deceived into entering long-term intimate relationships with male undercover police officers during the period from 1987 to 2009.
2. The undercover officers who targeted the women were all members of covert operation units under the control of The Metropolitan Police in London. Their remit was to infiltrate social and political movements in order to gather intelligence and thereby predict and control the impact of protest activity. There were two such units involved, the first was a highly secretive small unit, called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) which was first created in 1968, at the time of demonstrations around the Vietnam War and finally disbanded in 2008. The second unit, which operated nationally was formed in 1999 and known as the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), it was disbanded in 2011. However, successor units were established. Given their secretive nature, little was known about the existence, activities, policies, methodologies and operations of these units at the relevant time. These units were explicitly intended for the purposes of intelligence gathering, not for the purposes of investigating crime. The individual deployments of undercover officers lasted an average 4-5 years. The length of placement increased risk of gross intrusion into individuals’ lives, which was disproportionate to the purpose of the surveillance.
3. Undercover officers from the units adopted false identities and pretended to be dedicated political activists. Using their false identities, some or many of these officers pursued long term and intimate sexual relationships with the applicants and other women. It is believed these relationships were undertaken to assist the officers in building and maintaining their undercover identities as it increased their credibility and therefore the trust afforded to them by other activists. The relationships lasted between 7 months and 9 years. One of the officers fathered children with one of the applicants. It is known that another of the officers fathered a child with another targeted woman who is not an applicant in this case. The women all suffered psychiatric/psychological injury as a result of the relationships and the discovery that their partner (or former partner) was (or had been) an undercover officer. The impact of this grossly violating deception also seriously undermined the women’s ability to engage in political activity. It has had an undermining impact on their ability to form close personal relationships and, as a consequence, some of the women have been deprived of the opportunity to have biological children.
4. None of the women have been provided with full disclosure or information about how these relationships were allowed to take place or what information about their private lives is now held by the UK state as a result. The police officers or senior officers involved have not been subject to any criminal or disciplinary sanction as a result of the abuses committed.
Articles relied upon
5. The applicants of this communication allege breaches articles 1, 2 (a), (b), (d) and (f), 3, 5, 7 (c) 16 (a), (b) and (e) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”) arising out of the sanctioning and/or failure to provide effective protection from undercover police officers who were sanctioned and/or not prevented from entering into sexual relations with the applicants.
6. The police practice of allowing or instructing undercover police officers to have and maintain emotional, familial and sexual relations with women whilst deceiving them as to the officer’s true identity, in order to collect information or assist in disguising the officer’s true identity, is a policy that was directly discriminatory towards women (the “Practice and/or Policy”). The Practice and/or Policy overwhelmingly affected women. Throughout the entire 43-year period in which the police units were operational, almost all the incidents that are known of where undercover officers have formed long term intimate sexual relationships with those involved or connected to groups that they were spying on, have involved male officers targeting women. There is little or no indication of men being targeted in the same way and in the event there are any exceptions, the practice was overwhelmingly one involving male officers targeting women. Furthermore, the impact on women would be different for a number of reasons, including in particular the significant impact on the victims’ reproductive rights.
7. Under Article 1 of CEDAW, the term “discrimination against women” means “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
8. The actions of the state by deploying or sanctioning the Practice and/or Policy complained of caused severe harm and damage, in some cases irreparably so, to the rights of the applicants. It impinged upon a broad range of the fundamental rights of the applicants, including their physical integrity and was a gross violation of the applicantsâ€™ privacy and dignity.
9. The implementation of the policy and or practice was discrimination by the state [P. 71-73]. There was both a sex and gendered aspect to the discrimination. The policy and/or practice deployed by the police, disempowered the women involved as it undermined their autonomy and exploited the social context of male-female sexual and familial relations and the authors emotional and sexual responses within this context.
10. This was sexual harassment/gender- based violence [P.76-91]. The officers’ actions violated the Applicants’ bodily and emotional integrity and showed complete disrespect for the Applicants’ human dignity. They caused the Applicants deep humiliation, degradation and anguish and have left the Applicants with lasting mental health problems.
11. The state party did not act in such a way as to ensure that the organs of the state refrained from discriminatory conduct Article 2 (d) [P. 92-93]. Nor did the state party adopt legislative measures to prevent the discrimination (Articles 2 (a), (b), (c) and (f)) [P. 94-103].
12. The absence of legislation, judicial rulings, policy and/or guidance prohibiting undercover officers from engaging in sexual relationships with women they are targeting as a result of their political activity prevents the full development and advancement of women for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men (Article 3).
13. The State Party did not prevent gender stereotyping. Because stereotyped views will not change by themselves, it is necessary to develop an active policy in which every legal measure and every public policy is critically examined to ensure the elimination of fixed gender stereotypes. The applicants were subjected to gendered stereotyping in the conduct of the undercover police officers who targeted them. The pretence of intimacy, both emotional and sexual, was carried out in behaviour calculated to engage the women’s attentions and commitment (Article 5 (c)) [P. 107-113].
14. State Parties are obligated to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country (Article 7) [P. 114-120]. The fear of being deceived into an intimate relationship with an undercover officer inhibits the exercise of their fundamental freedoms of political association and to fully participate in public life.
15. State Parties are required to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family (Article 16) [P. 121-125]. The policy and/or practice, and the resulting relationships with officers deprived the women of their right to freely decide on the number and spacing of their children and who they entered into private, intimate and sexual relations with.
16. The State Party has not provided full reparation [as summarised at P.129]. The remedies sought are set out at P.130.
Background Information The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN general Assembly. A Committee of 23 independent experts on women’s rights from around the world monitors the implementation of CEDAW. The UK ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW in 2004. This enables individuals who have been subjected to discrimination under the convention and exhausted all domestic remedies to make complaints. However, since ratification, only three complaints have been made to the CEDAW committee and all held to be inadmissible. Text of MPS apology to women in Nov 2015 http://news.met.police.uk/news/claimants-in-civil-cases-receive-mps-apology-138574
Women’s statement on Police apology https://policespiesoutoflives.org.uk/met-police-finally-concede-undercover-relationships-were-an-abuse-of-power-and-violated-womens-human-rights/ Further information on CEDAW http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CEDAW/Pages/CEDAWIndex.aspx International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women http://www.un.org/en/events/endviolenceday/