Michel Forst, the United Nations special rapporteur on environmental defenders, has voiced his concern over what he calls “draconian” new laws on the UK’s right to protest, potentially putting some members of the public at risk.
Impact on Fundamental Freedoms
Forst spoke of the “increasingly severe crackdowns” and the impact of the UK’s newly implemented laws warning the public of their potential to curtail fundamental freedoms.
Forst expressed concern, arguing that he’d been left “alarmed” and “distressed” at the new law announcement, saying that Britons are at risk of “threats, abuse and even physical attacks.”
Forst stressed that environmental protesters play a crucial role for the “benefit of us all.” He asserted the need to protect those advocating for the environment during this time of climate crisis.
During his recent two-day visit to the UK, Forst uncovered disturbing information regarding the treatment of peaceful protesters within the legal system.
Defendant’s Right to Explain Removed
Forst found that the imposition of rules preventing defendants from explaining their motivations to the jury in some London courts is of particular concern, “It is very difficult to understand what could justify denying the jury the opportunity to hear the reason for the defendant’s action,” he said.
Forst went on to ask, “how a jury could reach a properly informed decision without hearing it.” He continued, “in particular at the time of environmental defenders’ peaceful but ever more urgent calls for the government to take pressing action for the climate.”
Forst questioned the rationale behind preventing defendants from discussing crucial aspects such as the climate crisis, fuel poverty, or even historical movements like the US civil rights movement.
Expressing deep concern, Forst pointed out the criminalization of peaceful demonstrations under the newly enacted Public Order Act 2023 and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
10-Year Sentence a Concern
Forst argued that these legal measures, with a potential 10-year sentence, pose a significant threat to the democratic right to peaceful protest.
“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,” Forst said.
Forst drew attention to a specific case where a peaceful protester was sentenced to six months in jail for a slow walk during a climate protest, “I am therefore seriously concerned”, he said.
The special rapporteur expressed serious concern about the implications of what he terms “regressive” new laws.
Forst also noted the rarity of imprisoning members of the public for peaceful protest in the UK before the enactment of these laws.
Harsh Bail Conditions for Climate Activists
Forst criticised the imposition of harsh bail conditions on climate activists engaged in peaceful protests, “Some environmental defenders have also been required to wear electronic ankle tags, some including a 10pm-7am curfew, and others, GPS tracking,” he said.
“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 to their eventual criminal trial,” Forst noted.
The severe bail conditions imposed on environmental defenders are particularly concerning for their significant impact on personal lives and mental health, “Such severe bail conditions have significant impacts on the environmental defenders’ personal lives and mental health,” he said.
“I seriously question the necessity and proportionality of such conditions for persons engaging in peaceful protest,” Forst noted.
Forst condemned the widespread use of civil injunctions to suppress peaceful protests, “The toxic discourse may also be used by the state as justification for adopting increasingly severe and draconian measures against environmental defenders,” he said.
Toxic Discourse in Media and Politics
“Chilling” Effect on Civil Society
“In the course of my visit, I witnessed first-hand 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 argued.
Forst is speaking out about the new laws to not just warn the public of the “draconian” government, but also to protect the safety of environmental protestors.
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