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Climate Activism Faces Increased Criminalisation in the UK

The urgency of addressing the climate crisis has reached unprecedented levels, with human activities causing greenhouse gas emissions to rise dangerously high, stated the Guardian. Despite global awareness and initiatives like the Paris Agreement, the world is still on a perilous trajectory, surpassing the one-degree Celsius mark above preindustrial levels. 

This climate crisis, already causing severe consequences such as mass displacement and extreme natural disasters, has prompted a surge in climate activism worldwide. However, in the United Kingdom, these activists find themselves increasingly targeted and criminalized by a series of laws implemented since 2022.

Legal Crackdown on Climate Activists

Since 2022, the Conservative British government has enacted a range of laws aimed at criminalizing the peaceful protests of climate activists. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022 has significantly expanded police powers to curb the right to protest

Authorities can now make arrests based solely on the grounds of excessive noise made by demonstrators. This legal arsenal poses a direct threat to the fundamental right to peaceful assembly. Additionally, penalties for obstructing the highway have escalated to potentially unlimited fines and six-month prison sentences.

UN Special Rapporteur’s Grave Concerns

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst, stated that he was extremely concerned regarding the situation in the UK. In his report, he emphasized the basic human right to peaceful protest and highlighted the alarming use of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to prosecute and convict peaceful protesters. 

The Act introduces the criminal offense of "public nuisance" punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment. Furthermore, Forst noted that the Public Order Act of 2023 is also being utilized to criminalize peaceful protest.

Recent cases reveal instances where environmental defenders were prohibited from explaining their motivation for participating in a given protest or from mentioning climate change, raising concerns about the fairness of legal proceedings.

Global Trend of Criminalization

The UK's approach to criminalizing climate activists aligns with a global trend identified by climate and environmental justice groups. Governments across the world, including Canada, the US, India, Australia and European countries, are deploying draconian charges to silence and intimidate activists. 

The playbook of strategies seeks to demonize and undermine activists, hindering their crucial role in advocating for urgent climate action. In the UK, the government's response to the surge in protests in 2019 resulted in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022, granting extensive powers to regulate protests and activism. 

The criminalization of climate activism in the UK raises concerns about the stifling of a fundamental human right – the right to peaceful protest. Striking a balance between maintaining public order and allowing citizens to voice their concerns is crucial to fostering a democratic society committed to addressing the existential threat of the climate crisis.

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