May 21, 2024


European nations must end the repression and criminalisation of peaceful protest and urgently take action to cut emissions in line with the Paris climate agreement to limit global heating to 1.5C, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders has said.

After a year-long inquiry that included gathering evidence from the UK, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, Michel Forst said the repression faced by peaceful environmental activists was a major threat to democracy and human rights.

All of the nations inspected are party to the Aarhus convention, which states that peaceful environmental protest is a legitimate exercise of the public’s right to participate in decision-making and that those engaged in it must be protected.

But Forst said that across Europe the response to peaceful environmental protest was to repress rather than to enable and protect.

“The environmental emergency that we are collectively facing and that scientists have been documenting for decades cannot be addressed if those raising the alarm and demanding action are criminalised for it,” he said.

“The only legitimate response to peaceful environmental activism and civil disobedience at this point is that the authorities, the media and the public realise how essential it is for us all to listen to what environmental defenders have to say.”

Nations should be urgently cutting emissions to meet the Paris agreement, acting to restore 30% of all degraded ecosystems by 2030 and working to substantially reduce deaths and illnesses from air pollution.

Forst said the failure of European nations to act urgently would lead to more direct-action protest. “To date, governments continue to take decisions that directly contradict the clear and urgent recommendations of scientists,” he said.

Forst said the parts of the media and some politicians across Europe were criminalising environmental activism and labelling it a “terrorist threat”. He highlighted the 2023 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend (TE-SAT), which features environmental activism in its entries on current “extremism”.

“Worryingly, the report classifies roadblocks and the occupation of bank buildings or airports as extremism and appears to take the view that being worried about climate change is an extremist viewpoint,” he said.

In Spain, the 2022 report of the public prosecutor’s office listed Extinction Rebellion under “international terrorism”.

New legislation in many countries, including the UK’s 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the 2023 Public Order Act, a so called “eco-vandalism” law in Italy and legislation in Germany that forbids any form of peaceful protest including sit-ins, was repressive towards peaceful protesters, he said.

“By categorising environmental activism as a potential terrorist threat, by limiting freedom of expression and by criminalising certain forms of protests and protesters, these legislative and policy changes contribute to the shrinking of the civic space and seriously threaten the vitality of democratic societies.”

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During his inquiry Forst received several reports of police harassment towards peaceful climate protesters. In Portugal, peaceful protesters had been arrested and detained by the police for “disruption of traffic” after taking part in a protest legally, with its itinerary notified to the authorities in advance. In France, people who tried to join an authorised demonstration had been subjected to widespread identity checks, vehicle searches and confiscation of their personal items by the police.

In addition, journalists covering climate protests have been harassed and arrested across Europe, including in the UK and Poland. In Sweden, a journalist was arrested at a climate protest, subjected to a full strip-search at the police station, held in police custody for six hours and had their equipment confiscated, Forst said.

He said he had recorded countless examples of police brutality. These included shoving and pushing protesters and using “pain grips” to deliberately inflict intense pain. In Austria, Finland, France and the Netherlands, protesters including children have been pepper-sprayed, and in the Netherlands police have used water cannon against non-violent protesters.

Several countries are adopting measures for peaceful demonstrators that are also used against organised criminals. These include early morning raids by counter-terrorism units and the use of undercover police to infiltrate groups.

Forst said states had international obligations related to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and they must abide by these legal duties in their response to environmental protest. He said states had to address the root causes of environmental mobilisation by taking action to address the triple environmental crises of pollution, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Forst’s report was released as the appeal court for England and Wales considers an application from the attorney general to remove one of the last remaining legal defences for protesters engaged in acts of criminal damage. The judges are due to give their ruling in the coming weeks.



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