UN expert Michel Forst published a letter Tuesday detailing his concerns on the treatment of environmental protestors in the UK. Forst condemned the “severe crackdowns” on environmental protestors, including the prison sentences issued, the bail conditions and the restrictions on peaceful protests.
Forst is the first UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention. His role is to “take measures to protect any person experiencing, or at imminent threat of experiencing, penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Aarhus Convention.” In carrying out this role, Forst traveled to the UK to meet with Non-Governmental Organisations, climate activists, and lawyers to discuss the treatment of environmental defenders.
In his letter, Forst highlighted the use of the Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to prosecute environmental defenders. Peaceful protestors have been convicted under this law for the crime of “public nuisance,” which can be punished with up to ten years imprisonment. Forst emphasises that prosecution of peaceful protests has been “almost unheard of since the 1930s” in the UK. He stated, “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.”
Another issue highlighted in the letter was the “harsh bail conditions” of those waiting for their criminal trial. Forst reported prohibitions on contact with others in the environmental movement, requirements to wear electronic ankle tags, enforcement of curfews, and GPS tracking. Forst “seriously question[ed] the necessity and proportionality of such conditions for persons engaging in peaceful protest.”
Other issues Forst discovered were the use of civil injunctions to prohibit protests in areas such as on public roadways, the way environmental defenders have been derided by the UK media and judges preventing environmental defenders from explaining why they participate in protests to juries. Following his discovery of these issues, Forst reiterated, “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.”
Forst ended his letter by promising to “continue to look more deeply into each of the issues” and to communicate with the UK government on how to tackle these problems. He stated that he aims “ 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.”
Forst is not alone in criticizing the treatment of environmental protestors. In November 2023, Human Rights Watch reported concerns about arbitrary arrests and the harassment of activists protesting an oil pipeline project in East Africa. Additionally, in October, multiple human rights experts expressed concern against measures Europe has used to silence climate activists.