The right to protest is enshrined in law in countries all over the world. Internationally, Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” In the EU there is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which has its own version but includes much of the same as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nationally, the UK Human Rights Act 1998 that was adopted in 2000 follows many of the rights that were set out in the ECHR but applied specifically to the UK. Across the pond in the USA, that right to protest is in the first amendment of their Constitution. In fact, if you go to any truly democratic country in the world, the freedom to protest is enshrined in law or it follows the internationally agreed declaration.

Keystone XL protests are one of the most well known fossil fuel protests in recent years (Source: Center for American Progress)

Of course there are countries that infringe on these rights and ban any protest. North Korea, China and Russia all have history of suppressing the right to protest, among many other basic human rights. Others are looking to suppress protests by targeting key individuals or making up charges to silence those that speak out. Take India for example – there are ongoing protests over recent laws passed to benefit large farming corporations and affect smaller country farmers. A number of activists have been jailed and beaten including a 22-year old who has been accused of sedition and conspiracy, simply for protesting.

The issues of protesting in authoritarian countries can and have been discussed at length by people much more qualified than myself and so I won’t go into too much detail on them. Instead, this blog is to look at how countries that pride themselves on freedom are infringing on those rights to suppress people’s ability to protest when it comes to the climate emergency and the continued building of fossil fuel infrastructure that takes us further away from the climate action required.

In recent years, whether it was the global school strikes or extinction rebellion protests, there have been an increasing number of protests against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure regardless of the climate emergency we still seem to be moving towards despite the overwhelming amount of science showing what we face. Millions and millions of people have actively taken part in a collective call for action on the climate emergency, yet the influence of the fossil fuel industry is still so strong that we’re still not close to making the necessary change.

The Influence of the Fossil Fuel Industry

With the COVID pandemic being the focus of everyone’s attention, and rightfully so, a number of US states that are still dependent on fossil fuels have been passing legislation that would criminalise protests against fossil fuels. In the last few years, legislation specifically related to the protection of fossil fuel infrastructure has been enforced in 14 states, predominantly across the central-eastern states. Since the turn of the year, four states have introduced new legislation that would specifically target those protesting things like pipelines and fossil fuel storage. It’s not just giving police the power to break up any protest on or near fossil fuel infrastructure either.

In the case of Kansas, pending legislation will provide a huge amount of protection for fossil fuel infrastructure whether it is built or being constructed. Charges against anyone who is caught trespassing but doing nothing on or near the infrastructure can face up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. For reference, trespassing in other circumstances almost always results in a fine of as little as $25 or as much as $1,000. The fossil fuel industry is getting an incredible amount of protection under the law by trumping up possible sentences.

In Minnesota, many of the anti-protest legislation goes even further. There are a number of pending laws that will enforce multi-year jail sentences and thousands of dollars in fines for something as little as trespassing. You don’t even have to be there either – anyone who even has a conversation with someone looking to protest fossil fuel infrastructure and doesn’t make a “reasonable effort” to stop them, can be jailed and fined thousands of dollars. There is even enough vague language within the legislation that could mean anyone providing medical help or even just passing a bottle of water could be charged.

On top of that, if you are tried and convicted of an offence that is somehow related (i.e. you may not have directly been part of any protest) you will lose all rights to any government benefits including food stamps, education loans and unemployment assistance. Not only would you receive an undue punishment for exercising your right to protest, but your future after the prison sentence would severely limit your options with a criminal record.

For more information on any of the anti-environment protest laws that have been passed, are pending, or were defeated, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law is a great place to look.

This isn’t just a USA Problem

Protesting the climate emergency isn’t just an issue in the USA. Here in the UK, Extinction Rebellion has been compared to neo-Nazi and Islamist terrorist groups as examples of ideological extremism. This time last year the South East Counter Terrorism Unit produced guides that went out to police officers and teachers that included Extinction Rebellion alongside these ideological extremists. As we have seen with the school climate strikes, it isn’t a case of students being brainwashed. The science is there, they understand it and they recognise how critical it is that we start making changes that are needed to protect the future of this planet.

Extinction Rebellion protest at the start of 2020 (Source: The Guardian)

In September last year, the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, wrote an article in the Daily Mail that deliberately targeted Extinction Rebellion protestors after a protest that took place outside the printing works used by outlets that have continued to deny the dangers of the climate emergency. In her piece on the protests, Patel wrote “…as you plot and scheme to curtail our freedoms you are committing criminal acts.” If Patel were to designate Extinction Rebellion as a crime group, protestors could much more easily be charged with breaking the law and serve much longer sentences than those that have been charged at recent protests. But a move like that should come as no shock to someone who has consistently criticised the Human Rights Act.

Protecting Regressive Energy over our Rights

Protesting the lack of action on the climate emergency is needed in countries all over the world. Very few countries are acting fast enough to slow down the global heating that is occurring and the devastation that each incremental rise is leading to. Those that have political or ideological differences will always be critical, but that shouldn’t stop people protesting something that they believe in. The comparisons to hate speech, which is rightfully monitored, and the infractions on the most basic human rights show just how climate misinformation and the influence of the fossil fuel industry still has on governments and media all over the world. The increasing amount of legislation that specifically protects the fossil fuel industry from protest and criticism are all signs of authoritarianism and are signs that we should all be careful of. Governments are vital in the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, but their protection of the fossil fuel industry is dramatically slowing down the much-needed progress.

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