Crackdown on climate protesters in UK ‘extremely worrying’ says UN expert

"Increasingly severe crackdowns" on peaceful protest in the UK condemned

A UN expert has given a damning assessment of the right to protest in the UK after a visit exposed him to “extremely worrying information” about increasingly severe crackdowns on climate activists. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst, issued a statement after a trip he made to the UK this January, in which he expressed alarm at the punishment of peaceful protesters, and “toxic discourse” used by the State to justify new draconian laws. 

During his visit Forst was made aware of prosecutions and convictions of environmental defenders under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which can see peaceful protesters being imprisoned for up to 10 years for “public nuisance”. 

Then there’s the Public Order Act 2023 which expanded the powers of the police even further particularly regarding stop and search and which the UN has already deemed “deeply troubling”. 

Forst expressed “serious concern” over the “regressive new laws” in the UK, citing cases such as that of a peaceful climate protester who took part in a slow march on a public road for around 30 minutes, and was sentenced to six months imprisonment in December 2023.

This case is now on appeal but Forst highlighted that, prior to the introduction of these laws, it was “almost unheard of since the 1930s for members of the public to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK”.

A further matter of “grave concern” is the use of civil injunctions in the UK to ban protest in certain areas, which has led to a significant number of protesters facing both a criminal trial and civil injunction, meaning they are being punished twice for the same action.  

Harsh bail conditions, including electronic ankle tags, curfews and GPS, with peaceful protesters sometimes held on bail for  2 years, were further condemned.

“I seriously question the necessity and proportionality of such conditions for persons engaging in peaceful protest,” said Forst.

In his extensive report, the UN expert also drew attention to the attacks on climate protesters in the mainstream UK media and by politicians, warning of its “chilling effect” on civil society. 

“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,” Forst warned. 

“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.”

With the planet in the grip of a climate crisis, the demonisation and persecution of climate activists is not only shocking but dangerous, as Forst stressed, “environmental defenders are acting for the benefit of us all”.

He therefore called instead for the protection of environmental defenders, who are willing to take such great personal risks and persecution to address the urgency of 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.”

(Credit: Vladimir Morozov/akxmedia)

Hannah Davenport is news reporter at Left Foot Forward, focusing on trade unions and environmental issues

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