Extremists ‘negate the fundamental rights and freedoms of others’ – humanists analyse new definition

14 March, 2024

The UK Government has published its latest extremism definition aimed at making sure it does not legitimise extremist groups. Humanists UK has worked with governments, and religion and belief groups for over 20 years to address concerns, and whilst welcoming some aspects of the new definition, undeniably needed to protect democracy, human rights, and the rule of law from mounting extremism of all kinds, there are concerns that parts of the new definition are broad, vague, and potentially arbitrary – and that not enough work has been done to build consensus in society around the definition.

The new definition says:

Extremism is the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to:

1) negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or

2) undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or

3) intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2).

Humanists UK has welcomed the fact that extremism by this definition must be based on “violence, hatred or intolerance” and the rooting of the new definition in human rights principles, especially in its first sub-clause with the reference to the “fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. This should make it clear that extremist activity does not extend to the call for the imposition of proportionate restrictions to achieve a legitimate aim – such as limiting manifestations of the right to freedom of religion or belief to prevent harm to others.

But Humanists UK is concerned and has asked for clarity about how points 2 and 3 could be applied in practice – especially when they are read together. Despite the Government’s stated intention to create a ‘more precise definition’, the second point uses the more broad term ‘undermine’ rather than ‘oppose’, which was used in the previous definition

If read too broadly, Point 3 risks capturing a wide range of organisations or individuals who intend to facilitate the sharing of a broad range of views. There is a risk that this could create a chilling effect on public debate and academic discussion, or have implications for groups campaigning on legitimate democratic issues.  

The definition applies only to the operation of Government itself. This means that organisations and individuals falling foul of the definition will be prevented from meeting with ministers and civil servants or accessing public funds. The definition is not statutory, nor does it apply to criminal law. However, the Government’s press release states that:

‘Non-central government institutions, such as arms-length bodies, higher education institutions and independent organisations including the police and CPS, will not be obliged to adopt the definition or apply the engagement principles initially.’ [emphasis added]

This may well imply that there is an intention to broaden the application of the definition, and in this context, its vagueness is a serious concern.

Humanists UK Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Kathy Riddick said:

‘It is so important to have a workable definition of extremism so that this and future governments can protect a society founded on human rights and freedoms, a liberal democracy, and the rule of law.

‘We do however have concerns that this definition may not fully achieve that aim. We ask the Government to give us clarity on how the definition will work in practice.’

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson added:

‘Growing numbers of groups and individuals – religious and secular, from the left and from the right – are opposing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. To defend them, we need a coherent and shared understanding of what this threat consists of. But definitions like this need to rely on more than just good intent, and this specific definition needs clarification in order to guard against any potential silencing of legitimate free expression or political campaigning.’


For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 3675 0959.

Read the Government’s press release.

Read more about our work on human rights and equality.

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