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UN rights experts criticise London climate protest 'ban' before court hearing

by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 16 October 2019 21:55 GMT

An Extinction Rebellion protestor with black tape covering her mouth listens to speeches at a climate change protests in Trafalgar Square in London, October 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anna Scholz-Carlson

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A police move to stop Extinction Rebellion members assembling is "clearly a violation of human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of association", UN expert says

By Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling

LONDON, Oct 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lawyer working with Extinction Rebellion climate protesters in London said the group hopes a court hearing on Thursday will rule that a police ban on their public gatherings this week is unlawful, as U.N. experts said it violated their human rights.

The Metropolitan Police said on Monday it had tightened rules on the two-week Extinction Rebellion "Autumn Uprising" because there had been breaches of public order regulations and "ongoing serious disruption to the community".

"Anyone who fails to comply... is liable for arrest and prosecution," it added on its website.

At an Extinction Rebellion rally in London's Trafalgar Square on Wednesday, speakers denounced the protest restrictions before a crowd of nearly 500 activists, flanked by police in day-glow vests.

Craig Bennett, CEO of green group Friends of the Earth, called the temporary order "draconian, appalling, shocking".

"When the state tries to shut down lawful, peaceful protest, you know the state has lost its argument," he said, as activists - many with black tape over their mouths - hoisted magenta and blue silk flags sporting Extinction Rebellion's hourglass logo.

Bennett, speaking through a megaphone, said greater restrictions on civil rights to protest were something "we should all be very worried about".

Caroline Russell, a Green Party member of the London Assembly, said "it is absolutely essential that we stand firm about the right to protest".

In the crowd, activists carried homemade placards reading, "Banning peaceful protest is like banning fire alarms" and "We know it's scary! But silencing us won't make it go away".

Extinction Rebellion activists gather for a protest in Trafalgar Square in London, October 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anna Scholz-Carlson


David R. Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said the police move to stop Extinction Rebellion members assembling in London was "clearly a violation of human rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of association".

"A preferable response would be to invest additional resources in responding to the global climate emergency instead of investing more money in policing," said Boyd, who is also an associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at Canada's University of British Columbia.

Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, described the London police order to end the demonstrations as "climate apartheid in action".

Climate change hits the poor first and hardest, he noted, while "the rich are in denial but also taking precautions to protect themselves".

"Meanwhile, the government uses the forces of law and order to suppress protests against the resulting deep injustices," he said in emailed comments to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The existential threat of climate change and the imperative need to accommodate public protest cannot be addressed effectively on the basis of outdated policing practices that sacrifice human rights," added the Australian academic, who is a professor at the New York University School of Law.

Protestors sit in discussion circles with signs that read "Banning peaceful protests is like banning fire alarms," and "This planet needs you" at climate change protests in Trafalgar Square in London, October 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anna Scholz-Carlson

Extinction Rebellion lawyers on Wednesday morning applied for a judicial review of the police order at London's High Court of Justice. An initial hearing was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

"For everyone in Extinction Rebellion, this is urgent – but it is not just for us that it's important. The police need clarity too," said Tobias Garnett, a human rights lawyer working with the climate activists.

In Trafalgar Square, police were waiting in vans or standing by the protesters, unsure of what to do on Wednesday afternoon, he said.

If the High Court rules against the protest ban, then arrests made under it could be deemed unlawful, opening the way to compensation claims, he added.

On Tuesday, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he had not been informed of the police decision in advance, and had asked senior officers to find a way for climate change protests to be held "lawfully and peacefully" in the British capital.

He had received assurances that lawful and peaceful protests had not been banned, he noted in a statement.

But asked what kind of climate protests were still permitted, the Metropolitan Police could not provide immediate comment.

As of Wednesday morning, the police said in an online statement that more than 1,640 people had been arrested in connection with this month's Extinction Rebellion protests, but were unable to provide an updated figure later in the day.


Around the gathering in Trafalgar Square, business owners said the protests, now in their second week, had not caused any significant loss of income or particular disruption.

Christina Timofei, who was selling souvenirs and tickets for London bus tours, said if anything business had been better as tourists turned out to see the protest camp there before it was cleared by police on Tuesday after the protest ban was issued.

Some of the company's buses had been slightly diverted, she said, but streets blocked by protests had produced unaccustomed quiet and more pedestrian footfall.

"It was better without the cars - no smoke, no beep-beep," she said. "I agree with (the protesters). I think they should just keep going."

Jeff Michels, 27, from Brussels, an assistant to a member of the European Parliament said he supports the climate change protests in Trafalgar Square in London, October 16, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anna Scholz-Carlson

Matthew Shribman, a science communicator who produces online videos aimed at making science more accessible, told activists at Trafalgar Square that their demonstrations were having the desired effect of making more people aware of climate risks.

"This movement is making people listen the world over," he said.

But Jackie Miller, an Australian tourist from Sydney, visiting Trafalgar Square with her two daughters, said she saw the protest's main effect as diverting police power from other areas.

"I don't believe in protesting. I don't think it gets you anywhere," the 44-year-old said. Yet when it came to demanding action on climate change, "I can see their point," she added.

Jeff Michels, 27, who lives in Brussels and was visiting the National Gallery art museum adjoining Trafalgar Square with a friend, said he felt disruptive protests were necessary to draw attention to an issue too few people took seriously enough.

"To get action, you need people to feel uncomfortable," he said. With popular support for climate action growing, the protests "will keep coming back", he predicted.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering in London @lauriegoering and Megan Rowling in Barcelona @meganrowling; editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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