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Environmental protesters under attack and often treated as terrorists: Interview with Michael Forst

July 11, 2024

  • The repression that environmental activists using peaceful civil disobedience are facing in Europe is a major threat to democracy and human rights, according to U.N. special rapporteur Michel Forst.
  • The 2016 Dakota Pipeline protests, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, not only triggered a major crackdown but also a flood of anti-protest legislation in the U.S.
  • Environmental defenders are increasingly stigmatized as criminals or terrorists in the public arena, which may lead to a spike in verbal and even physical violence.
  • In Germany, laws of the past that were meant to deal with terrorist outfits such as the Rote Armee Fraktion were used to deal with the environmental group Letzte Generation (Last Generation).

Events in February felt like a legal double whammy for the environment and its defenders. First, the United Nations Environment Assembly declined a Bolivian proposal to grant rights to nature and Mother Earth. Then, Michel Forst, the U.N. special rapporteur on environmental defenders under the Aarhus Convention, raised the alarm with his new paper: “State Repression of Environmental Protest and Civil Disobedience: A Major Threat to Human Rights and Democracy.”

Although the right to protest is safeguarded by universal human rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, Forst signals a worrisome rise in police brutality in dealing with environmental defenders. Meanwhile, courts tend to hand them heftier fines and heavier sentences. In Italy, the anti-mafia law was dusted off to deal with activists, while Britain introduced draconic new laws, which allowed one man to be sentenced to six months in prison for slow walking on a public road.

The Aarhus Convention guarantees environmental defenders the right to access information, partake in decision-making, including the right to protest, and a fair trial. The treaty was ratified by the European Union and all its member states, as well as Britain. Other member states are mainly found in Central Asia.

Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed the Escazú Agreement instead, which, like the Aarhus Convention, guarantees environmental defenders access to information, participation in decision-making and justice when it comes to environmental issues.

“In terms of freedom of speech and the right to protest, certainly in regards to climate change, the world is moving in the wrong direction,” Forst said.

Michel Forst speaks at ‘Environmental Human Rights Defenders: Responding to a Global Crisis’ in March 2017. Image by Maina Kiai via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Based in Paris, Forst, the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, spoke to Mongabay about the lack of rights for nature on the one hand, and the growing crackdown on people who defend nature’s rights on the other. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: “We do not accept that rights can be applied to nature or Mother Earth,” said a British representative at the 6th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in February. This point of view is in conflict with the one many environmental defenders, especially Indigenous peoples, increasingly adopt. What do you think of that remark?

Michel Forst: I wasn’t there, so I’m not familiar with the context. But there’s an ongoing discussion at the United Nations and the Council of Europe on the granting of rights to nature, as well as the concept of “ecocide.” Some states are currently very reluctant. But, hopefully, with the help of some specialist advice, they will change their view, as that’s the way I see the future.

I conducted a mission in Mongolia in 2019, as special rapporteur on human rights defenders, where there is still a strong Indigenous community and culture. They have a different cosmovision with a different perception of nature. The same is true elsewhere. Bolivia, for example, has the notion of Pachamama, in which the Earth is something much more than just the Earth.

For other societies, that is something very difficult to understand. For them, a forest is wood. And wood is used for furniture. That’s why it is important for all people to have a voice and be able to participate in the decision-making process. It will take time to accept and adopt Indigenous ways of thinking.

Mongabay: As long as nature has no intrinsic rights, this largely means others who may want to protect the environment will seek to stand up for it. However, your report signals an alarming trend of growing repression and criminalization of environmental protest and civil disobedience, starting with the public discourse. Why is language and the way protesters are spoken about important?

Michel Forst: Following my election as special rapporteur in 2022, I visited over 20 countries, meeting with, among others, many environmental rights defenders, all of whom complained about how the political discourse hampered their right to protest. In countries like France, the U.K., Germany, Austria and many others, politicians are using words like “eco-terrorist” or “green Taliban,” completely forgetting what these terms originally meant.

Such claims are then repeated by the mainstream media when describing young activists blocking access to a highway and calling for them to be treated and punished like terrorists, thus conveying the idea that they are criminals who should be arrested and sentenced to heavy fines and prison terms.

A positive development is France’s new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal (ed. note: This article was published before the recent French elections), who recently said in an interview that he had banned the use of the term eco-terrorist by his government. No minister is allowed to use that term. As he’s only 35 years old; perhaps he understands better what it means for the young generation to be called such a thing. The danger of deriding environmental defenders by the mainstream media and in the political sphere puts them at the risk of threats, verbal and even physical abuse.

Maasai pastoralists protest move to demarcate ancestral land in Loliondo, Tanzania. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

Maasai pastoralists protest move to demarcate ancestral land in Loliondo, Tanzania. Image courtesy of Forest Peoples Programme.

Mongabay: When it comes to rules and regulations, in what ways have countries limited the right of environmentalists to protest?

Michel Forst: Some countries have used old laws and regulations, which were thought to no longer apply, to deal with environmental protesters. In Italy, for example, the anti-mafia law has been used to ban protesters from being in certain cities. In Germany, laws of the past that were meant to deal with terrorist outfits such as the Rote Armee Fraktion were used to deal with the environmental group Letzte Generation (Last Generation).

In other countries, which do not have the same history as Italy or Germany, new legislation has been adopted to fight and combat young activists. The report cites many examples. The U.K., for example, passed the 2022 Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Act, which makes “public nuisance” a criminal offense punishable with up to 10 years in prison.

The 2023 Public Order Act further criminalizes peaceful protest. It defines locking-in, attaching oneself to another person or object, and even being equipped to do so, as a criminal offense. In December 2023, one British Just Stop Oil activist was sentenced to 6 months in prison for slow walking on a public road. Two others were sentenced to a combined five years for hanging a banner on a bridge.

It is interesting to note that investigative journalists in Britain have shown that the oil lobby was behind formulating both acts. So, to fight Just Stop Oil, the oil lobby in Britain developed its own set of rules and regulations, which were then passed into law by the British Parliament.

News speaker and climate activist Christina Puciata, 53, is carried away by the police in Berlin in October 2022. Image by Stefan Müller via Fickr (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: What is the trend when it comes to enforcing rules and regulations among police, prosecutors and judges?

Michel Forst: In general, the police rely more on heavy-handed tactics, including the use of water cannons and pepper spray. They make more arrests and conduct lengthy detentions for identity checks with protesters being held for up to nine hours in Portugal, 30 hours in Poland and 7 days in Germany.

Regarding prosecution, we see more severe charges being sought. For example, in Italy what used to be “soiling” is now increasingly being qualified as “damage” or “destruction,” while in France, “obstruction of traffic” has become “endangering the lives of others,” which allows prosecutors in both cases to demand heavier fines and sentences.

A very worrisome development in the U.K. is companies are increasingly taking to civil injunction [a court order ordering someone not to do something] to prevent people from protesting. Activists can be listed without being notified. As a result, they can be charged in both a criminal and a civil court for, say, blocking a highway.

The courts, which play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, through the use of tough pretrial detentions, severe bail conditions, lengthy procedures and harsh sentences contribute in the process of repression and criminalization of environmental defenders. In Britain, judges have banned the use of the word “climate” and “climate change” as a defense in the courtroom.

If you do dare use it anyway, it will be perceived as contempt of court, for which both the one on trial and his or her lawyer can be charged. The question is: How can activists explain their motives if they are not allowed to bring up the climate and climate change?

Mongabay: Are there no positive developments? Are there no exceptions to the trend?

Michel Forst: Yes, there are. In some countries, we see some positive movements as well. In Norway, for example. you see [fewer] arrests, less prosecution and generally only mild sentences of a few days. Some individual judges in other countries, too, seem to try to counter the trend. They seem to realize the importance of the triple planetary crisis we are facing in terms of climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. In France, for example, there have been some instances of judges lifting sentences.

Mongabay: In the U.S., the 2016 Dakota Pipeline protests, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and thousands of Native American supporters, not only triggered a major crackdown but also a flood of anti-protest legislation. According to the U.S. Protest Law Tracker, since the start of 2017, 45 states have introduced 303 anti-protest bills, 44 of which have been passed, while 26 remain pending. Were the Dakota Pipeline protests a ground zero for environmental protesters?

Michel Forst: I wasn’t there, so I can’t say much about the Dakota Pipeline protests. Also, the U.S. is not a party to the Aarhus Convention. What I can say is that in countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, there is a trend similar to the one in Europe. I think, a pivotal moment in Europe was the 2015 Paris Agreement when many people realized governments were not going to implement it, which led to an increase in environmental protests.

Drummers sing and drum in solidarity with the people of the Standing Rock Sioux in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, September 2016. Image by John Duffy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: Is the repression of environmental protest part of a wider erosion of human rights?

Michel Forst: The right to protest is at risk in many countries around the world. For example, we currently see in many countries the Foreign Agents [Registration] Act being introduced. Countries in South America, Africa and Asia are copying the bad example. Something else that is worrisome in this context is that new groups and networks have seen their access to funding being cut, including in many European countries, although the right to receive funding is protected by the 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Mongabay: Do you believe the future is more and more authoritarian, with less and less room for dissent?

Michel Forst: Yes, and that is something very concerning. In terms of freedom of speech and the right to protest, certainly in regards to climate change, the world is moving in the wrong direction.

Mongabay: The next U.N. climate conferences (COP29) will take place in 2024 in Azerbaijan. You foresee an improvement in terms of participation compared to the previous three COPs?

Michel Forst: The right to participate in international forums is very important. The last two COPs took place in UAE and Egypt. There were significant restrictions on access to the country and the conference, and we fear similar issues in Azerbaijan.

We are currently working closely with the authorities of Brazil, which will host COP30 in 2025, and Colombia, where in October the next biodiversity COP will take place, to ensure that things are done differently, to be more open, to offer wider access and allow protest. Both countries have so far been very forthcoming, and we hope that may set a precedent for the next COP, which will probably take place in Australia.

Mongabay: Does that include Indigenous people, as they are often the first and most directly affected?

Michel Forst: In both Colombia and Brazil, we have given indications to guarantee and promote the participation of Indigenous peoples in the international conferences. Meaningful participation, as in the right to express themselves and provide input in their own wording. When I was in Brazil, I spoke on many occasions with Indigenous representatives and they always say: “This is our lives being discussed, why are we not at the table? We want a seat at the table, we want to have a say.” And they are absolutely right.

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Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist. Following his law studies in Rotterdam, he spent some 20 years in the Middle East and India, before moving to Brazil in 2016. Based in São Paolo he mainly writes about politics and the environment. His work has appeared in numerous Dutch and English language publications, including MO Magazine, Middle East Eye, Trouw, NRC and De Groene Amsterdammer. He has a soft spot for history, loves photography and in 2004 coauthored the documentary 2000 Terrorists.