How is Europe cracking down on climate protests?

Police officers detain a demonstrator as people from 'Just Stop Oil' protest in London, Britain, October 2, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Police officers detain a demonstrator as people from 'Just Stop Oil' protest in London, Britain, October 2, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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Activists protesting climate change in Europe face tougher penalties, surveillance and repression as authorities crack down

  • New laws criminalise protest tactics, toughen penalties
  • Climate activists face mass arrests, harsh bail terms
  • Authorities conduct raids, tap phones

LONDON - Across Europe, governments are introducing new rules, doling out stricter punishments and ramping up surveillance in response to a rise in climate demonstrations and direct action protests, such as blocking roads or throwing paint at artworks.

The clampdown could have a chilling effect on the ability of climate activists to protest and could constitute a threat to democracy, according to rights experts, the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

Rights groups also note that while climate protests often lead to arrests, authorities have acted less harshly towards farmers, who blocked roads this year to protest against green policies they blame for lost earnings. The European Union agreed to delay some green regulations to ease tensions.

Here are some of the ways European governments are cracking down on climate protesters.

Which countries have introduced new protest laws?

Lawmakers across Europe have introduced legislation targeting tactics frequently used by people demonstrating to demand more action on climate change and have also increased penalties for those who take part in direct action protests.

In January, Italy approved the so-called "eco-vandals" law, which toughened penalties for people who damage monuments and cultural sites with new fines of up to 60,000 euros ($65,406).

In Germany, state police in Bavaria have frequently used an amendment to rules governing police powers to hold activists in preventative detention.

In 2022, Britain introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act that empowers police to restrict a protest if it is considered too noisy. The act, which also makes causing a public nuisance an offence, has been criticised by the UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders Michel Forst.

The separate Public Order Act, which came into effect last year, makes it illegal for protesters to attach themselves to others, objects or buildings and introduces the offence of obstructing transport, interfering with national infrastructure, and causing disruption by tunneling.

The Guardian newspaper said that hundreds of protesters were arrested in just four weeks under this act as they demonstrated against new oil and gas production in November.

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What other legal tools are used to deter climate protesters?

The UN's Forst has also criticised Britain's use of harsher sentences and tougher bail conditions, including the requirement to wear electronic ankle tags.

Protesters in Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands have also faced harsh fines, strict sentencing and mass arrests.

Dutch police arrested thousands of protesters over one weekend last September after activists blocked a road in The Hague to protest against government subsidies for fossil fuel industries

France and Germany have invoked anti-terror laws to investigate activists and ban environmental groups.

German authorities assigned an anti-terror unit to investigate activists from The Last Generation as part of a wider inquiry to determine whether the group should be classified as a criminal organisation. The Last Generation has denied its activities were criminal.

Civil injunctions, which are used to place restrictions on individuals, are also increasingly used to block activists from protesting outside corporations, and companies also use lawsuits against environmental activists.

How else are climate protesters being blocked?

The Council of Europe said climate activists have faced heavy-handed policing despite the fact that their disruptive protests are mostly peaceful and non-violent.

In March last year, security forces used pepper spray to break up protests at the European Gas Conference in Vienna while protesters have been beaten in Poland, France and Spain. In Germany police officers have used so-called "pain grips", which involve folding protesters hands down flat against their wrists, according to a recent position paper by Forst.

German authorities have said they tapped activists' phones and raided their homes, while fossil fuel companies have hired private spy firms to monitor activists online.

Is this crackdown also happening around the world?

Just as the protest movement is global so too is the crackdown.

Laws protecting critical oil and gas infrastructure have been introduced in the U.S. and Canada in response to major climate protests.

Greenpeace USA said in a report last October that 60% of all US oil and gas production and related local infrastructure were now protected by a legal wall from protests.

Human Rights Watch says new laws introduced across Australia that increase fines for blocking roads and ban locking-on tactics are part of a "politically motivated crackdown" designed to intimidate the climate movement.

And climate activists from around the world said their protests were restricted during the COP28 UN climate summit in the United Arab Emirates in December, after the UN issued guidelines restricting when and where protests could be held.

($1 = 0.9173 euros) 

(Reporting by Beatrice Tridimas in London; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

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