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The expert's remarks come amid heightened tensions between environmental activists and UK authorities, as the government takes a stern stance against disruptive protests. AFP News

A stringent crackdown on environmental protests in the United Kingdom, characterised by "draconian" new laws, excessive restrictions on courtroom evidence, and the use of civil injunctions, is casting a chilling effect on fundamental freedoms, according to a United Nations expert.

In the face of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, Michel Forst, the UN expert on environmental defenders, asserted that environmental protesters, acting for the "benefit of us all," must be safeguarded.

During a recent two-day visit to the UK, Forst unearthed troubling information about the treatment of peaceful protesters.

Forst highlighted concerns about rules imposed on defendants in a London court, where restrictions prevented them from elucidating their motivations to the jury.

At Inner London Crown Court, peaceful protesters faced court orders prohibiting them from referencing the climate crisis, fuel poverty, or even the US civil rights movement in their statements to the jury.

Forst also raised concerns about the erosion of fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

The expert's remarks come amid heightened tensions between environmental activists and UK authorities, as the government takes a stern stance against disruptive protests.

"It is very difficult to understand what could justify denying the jury the opportunity to hear the reason for the defendant's action, and how a jury could reach a properly informed decision without hearing it, in particular at the time of environmental defenders' peaceful but ever more urgent calls for the government to take pressing action for the climate," Forst said.

​​​​He expressed concern that the prosecution of peaceful protesters under the "regressive" new public nuisance laws in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which carries a 10-year sentence, and the application of the Public Order Act 2023, was resulting in the criminalisation of peaceful demonstrations.

Forst highlighted the case of a peaceful protester who was sentenced to six months in jail in December for leisurely walking down a road for 30 minutes during a climate protest under the new public order law.

"It is important to note that, 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," said Forst in a statement released on Tuesday morning. "I am, therefore, seriously concerned by these regressive new laws."

Forst also singled out the stringent bail conditions imposed on climate activists participating in peaceful protests.

These conditions include wearing tags while awaiting trial, restrictions on movement, and prohibitions on communication with other environmental activists.

Environmental activists in the UK have faced increased scrutiny and legal consequences for their actions.

The report highlights instances where protesters were arrested and charged with offences such as obstructing highways or causing public nuisance, raising questions about the proportionality of law enforcement responses.

He continued: "The toxic discourse may also be used by the state as justification for adopting increasingly severe and draconian measures against environmental defenders.

"In the course of my visit, I witnessed first-hand that this is precisely what is taking place in the UK right now. This has a significant chilling effect on civil society and the exercise of fundamental freedoms."

Environmental groups and human rights advocates have welcomed the UN expert's intervention, urging the UK government to reconsider its approach to handling environmental protests.

They argue that the right to dissent and express concerns about environmental issues is crucial in the face of growing ecological challenges.

Activists argue that suppressing environmental protests hinders efforts to address urgent ecological issues and stifles the democratic process.

As the UK government faces international scrutiny over its handling of environmental activism, this serves as a stark reminder of the importance of safeguarding fundamental rights and democratic values, even in the face of disruptive protests.

The debate over the balance between public order and the right to protest is likely to intensify, with implications for the future of environmental activism in the country.