The rights of climate and environmental protestors must be respected

NSWCCL joins with other human rights groups and environmental groups in condemning the increasingly harsh and disproportionate laws and actions taken against climate and environmental protestors in recent years, and supports victims of such laws and actions. This phenomenon is not discrete to New South Wales, with a prosecution of a climate defender dismissed in Western Australia this week, and a significant public campaign against proposed changes to clamp down on protest in the United Kingdom.

A joint statement of 8 human rights and environmental groups released on 30 November 2021 expressed concern about the harsh treatment of climate activists in Australia. Those groups stood in solidarity “with the thousands of community members who are increasingly taking peaceful action in the face of Australia’s refusal to address the climate crisis. Throughout history, powerful protest has been crucial to creating change and progressing justice and equality.” NSWCCL supports  the climate defenders and environmental and human rights organisations who are working to ensure that their rights to assemble, protest and speak are respected. 

Comprehensive research on threats to climate defenders in Australia was released by Human Rights Law Centre, Greenpeace and the Environmental Defenders Office last year. It found that “in Australia the ability of communities and organisations to advocate for stronger climate action has come under sustained attack, which is distorting policy and damaging our democracy in the process.” The research documented examples of excessive or disproportionate measures being employed to prevent effective protests. Broadly speaking, those measures include anti-protest laws, excessive bail conditions, excessive penalties, defunding climate education, threatening and impeding charities’ ability to engage in climate activism (although thankfully this threat has receded from its previous level of acuteness), targeting activists with litigation, and surveillance and infiltration activities, including from corporations. On this last category of measures, it has long been known that ASIO and the AFP monitor environmental groups, but recent evidence suggests that corporations are utilising private firms to surveil environmental groups. These multidirectional attacks on climate defenders emanate from parliaments, government departments, prosecutorial authorities, the police, courts and corporations. NSWCCL condemns such attacks on civil society organisations and human rights defenders as impermissible infringements of human rights which must cease.  

That attacks on climate defenders and civil society organisations are occurring and escalating at a time when acknowledgment that the climate emergency, which itself presents a significant challenge to human rights, is escalating is particularly concerning. It is perhaps no accident that these attacks are escalating at a time when Australian governments are coming under increasing and sustained public pressure for their inadequate response to the climate emergency, and at the same time corporate pressure from corporate interests opposed to necessary policy changes.  It is unacceptable for the State to ride to the defence of corporate profits at the expense of human rights and the public interest, both the rights of those affected directly by excessive actions towards climate defenders and those who are and will be affected by the climate emergency. 

These developments must be seen in a broader context of serious infringements on the right to protest in Australia. Governments and police have accrued additional powers over recent decades which have increasingly been used, particularly where corporate interests are threatened. We fear that the aggressiveness of the law enforcement response will only intensify as the level of outrage and intensity of protests rise commensurate with inaction in the face of the climate emergency. 

The response to recent protests in the Hunter and Newcastle by members of Blockade Australia is illustrative of the issues we seek to raise. A 22-year-old activist was sentenced to a 12 months imprisonment with a 6-month non-parole period for taking part in a disruptive action at the Port of Newcastle. NSWCCL President Pauline Wright told the ABC that such a sentence seemed harsh, saying "If the law means that people participating in peaceful protest end up in jail then that law is objectionable in a liberal democracy where we have a right to peacefully protest…When people take actions that put themselves or others into danger then that is one thing, but imposing a criminal sanction on that kind of activity isn't necessarily the way to go."

NSW Police then established Strike Force Tuohy, which deployed police resources generally reserved for serious criminal activity, to disrupt and prevent environmental protests in the Hunter/Newcastle region. Two weeks after the protests, the police raided the Hunter Community Environment Centre, an entirely separate group to that involved in the protest. 

Stronger protections need to be introduced for climate defenders in Australia and NSW. Greater scrutiny of bail conditions imposed by police is necessary. Governments should also recognise that strong and immediate action on climate change is the best way to stop disruptive protests. 

In current legal conditions, under which authorities have available a dizzying array of powers to prevent protest, NSWCCL calls for greater restraint and proportionality in government action. 

Climate defenders who find themselves facing criminal charges or are confronted by draconian or excessive responses can contact our legal panel which may be able to provide you with advice or representation (email [email protected]).

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