UN Rapporteur Michel Forst makes unprecedented intervention against “regressive” protest laws

The UN has released a statement which severely criticises the UK Government increasingly draconian treatment of peaceful climate action, suggesting that Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain supporters are being subject to “persecution, penalization or harassment”.

At 9:30am this morning the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe released a statement from Michel Forst, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders. It severely criticises the oppressive legal measures being used to silence, hinder, and imprison supporters of Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain for their work as “environmental defenders in the United Kingdom”. [1] [2]

Michel Forst was appointed to this role in 2022, after six years spent as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. He remarked:

“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.”

He made reference to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was authored by oil-funded rightwing think tank Policy Exchange, as well as the Public Order Act 2023 which was described by Amnesty International as “deeply authoritarian”, saying: [3] [4]

“I learned that, in the UK, peaceful protesters are being prosecuted and convicted under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, for the criminal offence of “public nuisance”, which is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.”

“I was also informed that the Public Order Act 2023 is being used to further criminalize peaceful protest. In December 2023, a peaceful climate protester who took part for approximately 30 minutes in a slow march on a public road was sentenced to six months imprisonment under the 2023 law… prior to these legislative developments, it had been almost unheard of since the 1930s for members of the public to be imprisoned for peaceful protest in the UK. I am therefore seriously concerned by these regressive new laws.”

He also discussed cases of Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain supporters being silenced in court, such as by Judge Silas Reid, commenting: [5]

“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. It is very difficult to understand what could justify denying the jury the opportunity to hear the reason for the defendant’s action.”

A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil said:

“We take action because we know that the climate crisis represents the greatest threat to human rights that the planet has ever seen. Already, people in the global south have been marked as ‘expendable’ in the pursuit of bloated oil profits. Sudanese people are being forced from their homelands by floods and drought, while fatalities from deadly ‘wet bulb temperatures’ are spiking in India. In the UK, the prison ship Bibby Stockholm is a disgraceful violation of human rights that’s harming people fleeing climate collapse. It’s a detention centre for asylum seekers where Leonard Farruku recently took his own life thanks to the unlivable conditions he experienced.”

Forst highlighted the dangerous usage of injunctions to target nonviolent campaigners, saying:

“I am deeply troubled at the use of civil injunctions to ban protest in certain areas, including on public roadways. Anyone who breaches these injunctions is liable for up to 2 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.”

“The fact that a significant number of environmental defenders are currently facing both a criminal trial and civil injunction proceedings for their involvement in a climate protest on a UK public road or motorway, and hence are being punished twice for the same action, is also a matter of grave concern to me.”


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Notes to Editors

[1] Just Stop Oil is a coalition of groups working together to demand that the government immediately halt all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK. Just Stop Oil is a member of the A22 Network of civil resistance projects.

[2] https://unece.org/sites/default/files/2024-01/Aarhus_SR_Env_Defenders_statement_following_visit_to_UK_10-12_Jan_2024.pdf

[3] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/rishi-sunak-right-wing-think-tank-anti-protest-laws-policy-exchange/

[4] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/blogs/campaigns-blog/public-order-bill-explained

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/feb/16/juries-deserve-the-truth-on-climate-protests