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A leading United Nations investigator has issued a stark warning to Britain over the UK Government’s clampdown on protest rights, as increasing numbers of peaceful campaigners are put behind bars.
Michel Forst, the first UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders and the Aarhus Convention – a global agreement to ensure citizens’ participation in environmental issues – issued a rare condemnation of the UK Government over its approach to climate protests today (Tuesday 23).
His statement, following a visit to the UK earlier this month, paints a bleak picture of the state’s response to environmental activism in the country. During his visit, the UN official met with government officials, NGOs, climate activists, and lawyers to gather insights into the state of environmental defence in the UK.
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Now in a report following his fact-finding mission, Forst – the former Secretary General of the French government’s human rights body – expresses deep concern about the increasingly severe crackdowns on environmental defenders in the UK, particularly regarding the right to peaceful protest.
He emphasises the importance of peaceful protest in a healthy democracy, noting that protests are inherently disruptive – but also a fundamental human right, writing that he received “extremely worrying information” during his visit on the “increasingly severe crackdowns on environmental defenders” in the UK.
Forst’s report particularly sounds the alarm over the use of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023 in the UK to prosecute peaceful protesters, potentially leading to imprisonment for up to 10 years for those participating in non-violent direct action.
He pointed to instances where UK judges have restricted environmental protesters from even discussing their motivations or mentioning climate change during trials – raising questions about the fairness and transparency of these proceedings.
The statement also highlights the severe bail conditions imposed on environmental defenders, including prohibitions on further participation in protests, and requirements for electronic monitoring, which climate groups say is impacting their personal lives and mental health before they are even found guilty of a crime.
And Forst criticises the use of ‘civil injunctions’ – often last minute court orders – to ban protests in a particularly area or against a specific firm. He expressed concern about environmental defenders facing both criminal and civil proceedings for the same actions.
Strikingly, the report draws attention to the way environmental defenders are often derided in mainstream UK media and political discourse – leading to increased threats, abuse, and state justification for severe measures against them, and a “chilling effect” on free speech.
He writes: “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.”
Despite these threats, ‘environmental defenders’ from Extinction Rebellion to Just Stop Oil and others have expressed their determination to continue protesting for urgent climate action, recognising the grave threat posed by climate change, the UN rapporteur added.
Forst’s statement also makes clear the world faces a “triple planetary crisis” of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, calling for the protection of climate campaigners rather than their incarceration.
He is now calling for a “constructive dialogue” with the UK Government to ensure that those seeking to protect the environment are not unfairly targeted or persecuted.
Robin Wells, director of Fossil Free London, met with the UN Special Rapporteur when he visited the UK alongside other representatives from climate campaign groups engaged in civil disobedience earlier this month.
Well said: “Our government has made its anti protest, pro fossil fuel politics clear with laws against protesting alongside a weak windfall tax and field approvals like the massive Norwegian oil field in our North Sea – Rosebank.
“Our current path means runaway climate change which is the collapse of everything we love. Protest and direct action are our only hope to force change. The undermining of these rights undermines our rights to survival itself.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy but we must also protect the law-abiding majority’s right to go about their daily lives.
“While decisions on custodial sentences are a matter for the independent judiciary, the Public Order Act brings in new criminal offences and proper penalties for selfish, guerrilla protest tactics.”
UN Special Rapporteur’s Statement – Extract
“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. 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.
“I was also informed that the Public Order Act 2023 is being used to further criminalize peaceful protest. In December 2023, a peaceful climate protester who took part for approximately 30 minutes in a slow march on a public road was sentenced to six months imprisonment under the 2023 law.
“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.
“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, in particular at the time of environmental defenders’ peaceful but ever more urgent calls for the government to take pressing action for the climate.
“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-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.
“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. Anyone who breaches these injunctions is liable for up to 2 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Even persons who have been named on one of these injunctions without first being informed about it – which, to date, has largely been the case – can be held liable for the legal costs incurred to obtain the injunction and face an unlimited fine and imprisonment for breaching it.
“The fact that a significant number of environmental defenders are currently facing both a criminal trial and civil injunction proceedings for their involvement in a climate protest on a UK public road or motorway, and hence are being punished twice for the same action, is also a matter of grave concern to me. I am 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. As a final note, during my visit, UK environmental defenders told me that, despite the personal risks they face, they will continue to protest for urgent and effective action to address climate change. For them, the threat of climate change and its devastating impacts are far too serious and significant not to continue raising their voice, even when faced with imprisonment.
“We are in the midst of a triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Environmental defenders are acting for the benefit of us all. It is therefore imperative that we ensure that they are protected. While the gravity of the information I received during my visit leads me to issue the present statement to express my concerns without delay, I will continue to look more deeply into each of the issues raised during my visit and in the formal complaints submitted to my mandate.
“In this regard, I also look forward to engaging in a constructive dialogue with the Government of the United Kingdom in order to ensure that members of the public in the UK seeking to protect the environment are not subject to persecution, penalization or harassment for doing so.”
Read the full statement here.
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