The Editorial from The Guardian discusses the importance of environmental protests in protecting democracy. They argue that dissent and peaceful protests are essential for ensuring that the government is held accountable and that necessary changes are made to protect the planet. The piece emphasizes the role of citizens in standing up for their beliefs and using their voices to challenge those in power.
In recent times, activists in the United Kingdom have successfully carried out some notable, yet bothersome, acts of civil disobedience related to environmental issues. While these actions have caused frustration and inconvenience due to disruptions in daily life, they have also managed to capture our focus. The goal of these protests is to condemn an unfair situation by deliberately breaking laws in a peaceful manner. The reason behind this is the urgent concern for the planet’s future and its impact on humanity.
The actions of the suffragettes, such as breaking windows and setting fires, are nothing new. Today, we recognize and honor their bravery and cause. However, the government seems determined to make protests a criminal offense, a decision that has been rightfully criticized by Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders. Forst warns that in Britain, the fundamental right to protest, a pillar of democracy, is being threatened. The demonization of environmental activists and the erosion of civil rights without proper oversight from lawmakers or protection from the courts are undermining the UK’s commitment to freedom and the rule of law. It was highly uncommon for peaceful protesters to be imprisoned in the UK since the 1930s. However, last month, a climate protester was sentenced to six months in prison for simply walking slowly on a road.
The United Kingdom is trying to dismiss this criticism, as it did in August when a UN special rapporteur cautioned that lengthy prison sentences for activists could restrict freedoms. However, the British government must proceed cautiously. Mr. Forst’s statement encourages those who feel wronged to report their grievances directly to him. He has the authority granted by an international agreement signed by the UK and could bring it up with government officials. If their response is unsatisfactory, Britain could be deemed to be acting unlawfully.
Mr. Forst is troubled by many things that he believes are unjust. He was shocked to discover that in criminal cases involving environmental issues, defendants were not allowed to discuss their reasons for taking part in a protest, nor were they allowed to bring up the topic of climate change when their freedom was at risk. The ability of a jury to acquit has long been viewed as a protection provided by the constitution, ensuring that criminal laws align with the moral sense of the average person. It seems that government officials hold this belief in low regard.
Activists have been acquitted by juries for years after presenting their reasoning for participating in seemingly illegal protests. It would be concerning to eliminate their role, as it goes against the principles of freedom. However, Gail Bradbrook, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, was convicted last year for causing criminal damage after being prohibited by the judge from explaining her motivation. There could be even harsher consequences if the attorney general, Victoria Prentis, succeeds in a trial in the court of appeal next month. She aims to limit the defenses available in cases where climate protestors are charged with criminal damage. It is possible that she will be successful, as judges have previously sided with her predecessor, Suella Braverman, by ruling that the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was not a “proportionate exercise” of the right to protest, removing a defense for the protestors.
Free societies are vulnerable to destruction. They require leaders who value the importance of following laws and an honest media. However, they also rely on citizens who are committed to preserving their liberties. Since 2016, the Brexit movement has encouraged a careless disregard for the democratic foundations of Britain. It is crucial that there is space for disagreement and that jurors have access to the reasoning behind it. Informed individuals are more likely to support environmental activists than those who condescend to them. As the world becomes more intricate, it is imperative to have a politics of acceptance rather than discrimination.