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Climate protesters under fire in Europe

Published : 16 Mar 2024 10:14 PM
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Environmental activists are increasingly facing hostility across Europe, a UN expert said, warning that the very right to protest was "at risk" in countries usually considered beacons of democracy.

Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders, told AFP  in an interview this week that he was deeply troubled by the hardening tone  against climate activists in countries including France, Austria, Germany and  Britain.

Government ministers have been throwing about terms like "eco terrorists" and  "Green Talibans" to describe non-violent activists, he claimed, also blaming  some media reporting for contributing to an increasingly hostile public  attitude.

"It creates a sort of chilling effect," warned Forst, an independent expert  appointed under the UN's Aarhus Convention -- a legally-binding text that  provides for justice in environmental matters.

"Currently, the right to protest is at risk in Europe."  Forst said he had recently visited several European countries after receiving  complaints that activists faced treatment that allegedly violated the  convention and international human rights law.

Following a visit to Britain, he publicly voiced alarm at the "toxic  discourse" and "increasingly severe crackdown" on environmental defenders. 

Forst charged that "regressive laws" in Britain were being used to slap  climate activists with harsh penalties, with one activist sent to prison for  six months for a 30-minute slow march disrupting traffic.

Another activist had been sentenced to 27 months behind bars in the UK, he  said. He also decried harsh sentences in other countries, including Germany.

Forst travelled to France last month following complaints about a crackdown  on a drawn-out anti-motorway protest near the southwestern city of Toulouse.

Activists, called "squirrels", who have been squatting in trees destined to  be chopped down to make way for the A69 motorway, have accused law  enforcement of denying them access to food and water and using floodlights to  deprive them of sleep.

Forst said he had been blocked from bringing food to the activists, and was  "shocked" by what he found. 

"Obviously, deprivation of food, of drinking water, of sleep is clearly  against international law," said Forst, a French national.

They are "considered acts of torture in international texts", he added. 

Forst said that European media coverage often focuses exclusively on the  drama around demonstrations and not on the climate crisis prompting the  protests.

The world is in a very "dangerous time", he said, but the general public  often do not understand why young people are "blocking access to airports, or  gluing their hands on the floor".

As a result, states have felt justified in developing new policies and laws,  paving the way for police crackdowns, and increasingly harsh sentences. 

In Britain, he said that some judges were even barring environmental  defenders from using the word "climate" to explain their motivation to the  jury.

Forst said that he was investigating whether big companies, especially in the  oil and energy sector, might be lobbying to increase the pressure on climate  activists.

"The most dangerous" companies were even "using security forces, connections  with the mafia... to target and sometimes to kill defenders," he said.

Forst said he was currently organising consultations in Latin America and  Africa with environmental activists there who are facing attacks by  companies.

He is also investigating whether companies based in Europe are, through local  subsidiaries, contributing to attacks on activists.

And the expert blasted European countries for "a double standard" by  supporting environmental defenders in other parts of the world but "not  protecting their defenders inside Europe".