A UN representative has condemned “increasingly severe crackdowns” on environmental protesters in the UK following a visit to the country.
The special rapporteur on environmental defenders Michel Forst said he had spoken to Government officials, NGOs, activists and lawyers earlier this month and was “deeply troubled” and “alarmed” at how the UK state is criminalising peaceful protest.
In a statement published on Tuesday, he said prior to new legislation introduced in the last two years, it was almost unheard of for people to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK since the 1930s.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023 gave more powers to police to arrest protesters as well as to judges to give harsher sentences.
Mr Forst said: “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 that they cause disruption or involve civil disobedience does 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.”
Hundreds of Just Stop Oil activists are facing court action for protests over the past few months, others have been jailed for six months for spending 30 minutes walking down a road blocking traffic.
Mr Forst criticised the harsh bail conditions given to the activists, who must sometimes wear ankle tags and are prevented from speaking to friends within the environmental movement.
Some have been waiting for several years for a trial, subject to bail conditions, placing a strain on their mental health and wellbeing, he added.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
The UN representative was also “distressed” at vitriolic language used in the media and by politicians against climate activists, which he said has a chilling effect on basic freedoms and on society more generally.
Mr Forst said he hopes the UK Government will speak constructively about protecting the right to protest and those who exercise it.
He added: “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.”