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UK environmental activism crackdown raises alarm for human rights and democracy

Peaceful protesters are being prosecuted and convicted under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, contravening the UN Convention on Human Rights, posing a major threat to democratic process. 

man in black coat holding blue and white signage

Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, visited the UK last year, and has published a scathing assessment of Britain’s increasingly draconian approach to activists. 

Post-pandemic legislation around the right to peaceful protest has become an increasing cause for concern among liberals and human rights campaigners. In the past year, Environment Journal has reported on a number of cases which show democratic liberty is being eroded.

These include a number of protestors who were arrested for standing outside a court room holding placards during the trial of Trudi Warner. The defendant had taken similar action at an earlier climate case presided over by judge Silas Reid, in which he had instructed jurors not to allow their conscience to dictate the decision to sentence or not. This is despite the right for convictions and consciences to form the basis of a verdict being enshrined in British law since 1670. 

Forst has now described the UK situation as ‘extremely worrying’. ‘The right to peaceful protest is a basic human right. It is also an essential part of a healthy democracy. Protests, which aim to express dissent and to draw attention to a particular issue, are by their nature disruptive. The fact they cause disruption or involve civil disobedience do[es] not mean they are not peaceful. 

‘As the UN Human Rights Committee has made clear, states have a duty to facilitate the right to protest, and private entities and broader society may be expected to accept some level of disruption as a result of the exercise of this right,’ Forst continued. ‘During my visit, however, I learned that, in the UK, peaceful protesters are being prosecuted and convicted under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, for the criminal offence of ‘public nuisance’, which is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.’

Forst also cited the case of 57-year-old Stephen Gingell, the first British citizen to be jailed under a new law, introduced as Section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023, which critics argue makes it illegal for anyone to walk down the middle of a road — action now considered to be ‘interference with key national infrastructure’.  The father of three from Manchester was among 40 Just Stop Oil supporters to engage in a slow march on Holloway Road, London, on 12th November last year. Having participated for 30 minutes, Gingell was handed a six month jail sentence.

‘That case is currently on appeal, but it is important to highlight that, prior to these legislative developments, it had been almost unheard of since the 1930s for members of the public to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK. I am therefore seriously concerned by these regressive new laws,’ said Forst. ‘I was also alarmed to learn that, in some recent cases, presiding judges have forbidden environmental defenders from explaining to the jury their motivation for participating in a given protest or from mentioning climate change at all.

‘It is very difficult to understand what could justify denying the jury the opportunity to hear the reason for the defendant’s action, and how a jury could reach a properly informed decision without hearing it,’ he continued. ‘I also received highly concerning information regarding the harsh bail conditions being imposed on peaceful environmental defenders while awaiting their criminal trial. These have included prohibitions on engaging in any protest, from having contact with others involved in their environmental movement or from going to particular areas. Some environmental defenders have also been required to wear electronic ankle tags, some including a 10pm to 7am curfew… Under the current timeframes of the criminal justice system, environmental defenders may be on bail for up to two years from the date of arrest.’

Forst also highlighted the distressing way in which ‘environmental defenders’ are being derided by some mainstream media platforms, raising the risk individuals may encounter threats, verbal and physical abuse for participating in peaceful protest. Those who ‘rely on toxic discourse to justify their own aggression’ feed governmental justification for adopting ‘increasingly severe and draconian measures’ against climate activists. He also suggested, anecdotally at least, that those engaged in direct action had told him that despite the increased chance of prosecution and persecution, they would not give up on protests – meaning Downing Street’s current approach is unlikely to deter those already involved in action. 

You can read Forst’s full statement here

More on climate activism:

Image: Marc Pell

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