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A protester being arrested during an Extinction Rebellion strike in London in 2019 Alamy Stock Photo
climate protest

UN expert slams UK over 'severe crackdowns' on climate protesters

A UN rapporteur who visited the UK said he was “alarmed” by conditions faced by environmental defenders.

A UN EXPERT has criticised the UK for “increasingly severe crackdowns” on climate campaigners, expressing concerns that the country is stifling the right to protest.

As more members of the public grow concerned about climate change and turn to protesting to express their fears in recent years, the UK government has been pushing back on demonstrations, particularly ones that block traffic lanes.

UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention Michel Forst made his first visit to the UK in his role as rapporteur earlier this month.

During the two-day visit, he met with government officials, NGOs, climate activists and lawyers.

In a new statement issued today, Forst detailed that he received “extremely worrying information” during those meetings about “increasingly severe crackdowns on environmental defenders in the United Kingdom, including in relation to the exercise of the right to peaceful protest”.

Forst said the developments are a “matter of concern for any member of the public in the UK who may wish to take action  for the climate or environmental protection”, adding that the right to peaceful protest is “a basic human right” and “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 that they cause disruption or involve civil disobedience do not mean  they are not peaceful,” he said.

“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.”

As global average temperatures rise, the climate crisis poses increasing threats to people and nature all around the world.

The main cause of climate change is human activities that burn fossil fuels and release  excessive volumes of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, which trap heat near the earth’s surface and push average temperatures upwards.

Many countries have pledged to reduce emissions but the world is still way off track to prevent disastrous impacts and the UK government under Rishi Sunak has moved backwards on numerous climate action promises.

In his statement today, Forst said he learned during his visit that peaceful protesters are being prosecuted and convicted for “public nuisance”, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and that the Public Order Act 2023 is “being used to further criminalise peaceful protest”.

He said he was also “alarmed to learn” that in some cases judges had “forbidden environmental defenders from explaining to the jury their motivation for participating in a given protest or from mentioning climate change at all”.

Another concern was the “harsh bail conditions being imposed on peaceful environmental defenders while awaiting their criminal trial”, which include “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-7am curfew, and others, GPS tracking.

Under the current timeframes of the criminal justice system, environmental defenders may be on bail for up to 2 years from the date of arrest to their eventual criminal trial.

“Such severe bail conditions have significant impacts on the environmental defenders’ personal lives and mental health and I seriously question the necessity and proportionality of such conditions for persons engaging in peaceful protest,” Forst said.

“In addition to the new criminal offences, I am deeply troubled at the use of civil injunctions to ban protest in certain areas, including on public roadways.”

He said he was “also distressed to see how environmental defenders are derided by some of the mainstream UK media and in  the political sphere”.

By deriding environmental defenders, the media and political figures put them at risk of  threats, abuse and even physical attacks from unscrupulous persons who rely on the toxic discourse to justify their  own aggression.

“The toxic discourse may also be used by the State as justification for adopting increasingly severe  and draconian measures against environmental defenders.

“In the course of my visit, I witnessed firsthand that this is precisely what is taking place in the UK right now. This has a significant chilling effect on civil society and the  exercise of fundamental freedoms.”

Forst said he plans to look further into the issues raised and engage with the UK government to ensure members of the public seeking to protect the environment are not persecuted, penalised or harassed for doing so.

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