AMNESTY International has urged Scottish Parliament bosses to pull back on new national security protest rules on human rights grounds, the Sunday National can reveal.

The organisation wants Holyrood bosses to reveal “what consultation and human rights impact assessment” informed the decision to seek a controversial law change set to cover the parliament and its grounds. It says the move, set to take effect on October 1, is “out of step” with the approach to COP26 in November and could even make demos more dangerous.

The cross-party Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) says gaining a “protected site” designation from the Home Office under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act will not curb the right to protest and puts Scotland’s devolved parliament on the same footing as those in London and Cardiff, but critics – including former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill MP of the Alba Party – say the change is unnecessary and runs contrary to the spirit of democracy.

READ MORE: 'Morally wrong': Legal expert picks apart plans to restrict protests at Holyrood

Now Naomi McAuliffe, programme director of Amnesty International in Scotland, has told the Sunday National the shift may have a “chilling effect”, saying: “We are seeing serious assaults on civil liberties and the right to protest peacefully across the UK at the moment and Holyrood should be trying to set a different course. For these changes to be introduced at any time is very worrying, but less than a month before Glasgow hosts the world’s biggest climate conference sets a particularly concerning tone.

“The right to protest is balanced with other rights and considerations however the Scottish Parliament’s Corporate Body’s failure to publish detail of their decision making process lacks transparency. I have sought assurances from the corporate body and Presiding Officer that these new powers will not be used until there has been a consultation process and full human rights impact assessment published. While MSPs and parliamentary staff must be able to go about their business safely it would be completely unacceptable for the introduction of these powers to have a chilling effect on the right to protest peacefully outside of Scotland’s parliament.”

Thousands of demonstrations are held at the Scottish Parliament every year, with recent gatherings focusing on issues ranging from the treatment of care home residents to Gender Recognition Act reform and the Cambo oil field. On Thursday, crowds gathered to voice their rejection of the protest rules themselves.

The National: Newly elected Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Alison Johnstone  during the oath and affirmation ceremony at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh following last week's Holyrood election. Picture date: Thursday May 13, 2021. PA Photo. MSPs

In a letter to SPCB chair, Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone (above), McAuliffe stated: “I would like to put on record my concerns about the possible human rights impact of this decision and request detail regarding what consultation and human rights impact assessment informed it.

“While the right to protest is one which is balanced against considerations such as public safety and national security, there is no doubt that this legislation carries the potential to have a chilling effect on the right to peaceful protest outside Scotland’s Parliament – a result which would be entirely incompatible with the parliament’s role as a human rights guarantor. Amnesty would like to see the enforcement of these measures postponed until a consultation process has taken place and human rights impact assessment published.”

As part of Police Scotland’s independent advisory group (IAG), Amnesty is involved in talks about policing at COP26. McAuliffe told Johnstone: “Protests become unlawful or sometimes violent where and when individuals have a sense of being treated illegitimately, where they feel voiceless or powerless, and when conventional protests no longer work. It would be important to consider the unintended consequences of pushing protests away from a democratic space.

“The step to designate Holyrood as a protected site will introduce potential criminal prosecutions for peaceful, if unlawful, protests within this area. This appears out of step with the work on policing of protest that Amnesty has engaged with Police Scotland on over the past 18 months on both the COP26 IAG but also the IAG on coronavirus powers which considered the policing of protest in a pandemic.”

On Tuesday, SPCB member Claire Baker told MSPs: “Corporate body members considered a paper, received a comprehensive briefing from Police Scotland, and had an opportunity for full discussion. The decision to seek designated status was unanimous, and no member requested that it be put to a vote. In applying for designated status, we are not seeking to curb or limit protest. The reason for applying for designated status is to give the Parliament the means by which to address protests by individuals whereby they try to prevent the Parliament from meeting to carry out its essential role, or seek to interfere with the rights of others to engage at Holyrood, or where their actions make it unsafe for others.”

A Scottish Parliament spokesperson said: “The Parliament welcomes and facilitates thousands of protestors all year round as an essential part of the expression of democracy in Scotland. That key engagement will continue. We’ll respond to Amnesty International shortly making clear this point.”