October 17, 2019 / 7:57 PM / a month ago

UK clampdown on climate protests sets 'disturbing precedent' - UN rights expert

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s response to escalating climate protests on London’s streets this month, with mass arrests and tighter restrictions, is consistent with a “global pattern of suppression” of environmental activists, said a U.N. human rights expert.

Those who oppose environmentally damaging projects such as coal plants or mines face worse challenges in other parts of the world like Latin America and Southeast Asia, where they suffer violence, harassment and intimidation, said David R. Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

But London police moves to dismantle protest camps set up by the Extinction Rebellion group and prevent its members gathering “is a disturbing precedent that other governments will utilize to their advantage”, Boyd told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Police on Monday ordered that any “assembly” linked to the two-week Extinction Rebellion “Autumn Uprising” should cease.

Activists petitioned for a swift judicial review, but were told on Thursday a High Court hearing would be held on the case on Oct. 24, after the protests are scheduled to end.

“While we are disappointed that the court is not able to hear the application sooner - particularly given the immediate risk of people being unlawfully arrested for peaceful, non-violent protest - we nonetheless look forward to putting forward our arguments next week,” Extinction Rebellion’s legal team said in a statement.

The London protests have seen climate activists block roads and disrupt traffic near government buildings and corporate offices, as well as at train stations and London City Airport.

Despite the clampdown, the actions have continued, including a large rally in Trafalgar Square Wednesday afternoon.

More than 1,710 people have now been arrested since the protests began on Oct. 7, police said.

Boyd said rights to freedom of expression and association were clearly enshrined in the UK Human Rights Act, and were being curtailed under the current policing approach.

The authorities can step in “if public safety is jeopardized, if there is disorder or crime happening”, he noted.

But the Extinction Rebellion protests seemed to have been non-violent and carefully planned, he added.

“What is unfortunate is that we’re living through a global climate emergency - that is clear from the scientific evidence - and instead of responding with appropriate urgency to tackle the causes... governments are putting their efforts into tackling protesters instead,” Boyd said in an interview.

On Thursday, the 14-member International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations expressed concern that the London protest prohibition “is disproportionate and constitutes a serious interference with the right to protest”, and called for it to be reversed.

The Metropolitan Police Service said on its website that it had not banned protests by climate activists. “What we cannot allow is for central London to be brought to a standstill,” said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor.

Britain’s Home Office said operational decisions were a matter for the police.

The right to protest peacefully was a long-standing tradition in Britain and “a vital foundation of our democracy”, it said in an emailed statement.

But it said it was also essential that “people can go about their daily business without disruption”.

The government has highlighted its efforts to act on climate change. Four months ago, Britain became the first major economy to legislate for net-zero emissions by 2050.

This week it announced a new Environment Bill, as well as stepped-up measures to tackle climate change, including a plan to accelerate the decarbonization of transport and improve energy efficiency in buildings.

Craig Bennett, CEO of green group Friends of the Earth, however, told Wednesday’s rally in Trafalgar Square that the government’s assertion it was doing more to address climate threats than other nations was insufficient.

“The only thing that’s relevant is whether the government is doing enough,” he said, noting scientists had urged far more rapid action to cut climate-changing emissions, so as to limit global impacts such as worsening hunger, heatwaves and storms.

One of the key demands of the Extinction Rebellion movement is for Britain’s net-zero target to be brought forward to 2025.

ANGRY YOUTH

Boyd, who is also an associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at Canada’s University of British Columbia, said governments around the world “for several decades have failed to take adequate action to address the climate crisis”.

That delay is why young people now are angry about the slow pace of change, he said.

The past year has seen Friday school strikes and demonstrations by children and students grow in many countries, as they demand politicians do more to curb global warming.

Young protesters also are seeking a say in decisions that affect the climate and environment.

The U.N. rapporteur - who will next week present a report to the United Nations saying climate change is already harming billions of people, violating human rights and exacerbating inequality - warned even those protests could lead to arrests if they continued to expand.

A mass march led by young climate strikers, including Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, last month attracted an estimated 4 million people around the world.

“There is no question that, at some point, those protests will cross the line as well from the governments’ perspective, and that will be a pretty ugly day when we start to see young people arrested,” Boyd said.

“Unless governments start responding substantively to demands that children and youth are making, those children and youth are going to reach a point of frustration where things will boil over,” he added.

Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling, additional reporting by Laurie Goering in London; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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