LONDON — British politicians are putting environmentalists at risk of “threats, abuse and even physical attacks” by promoting a “toxic discourse” about green protesters, a United Nations expert has claimed.
Michel Forst, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on environmental defenders, said he had been left “alarmed” and “distressed” by a fact-finding mission to the U.K. earlier this month, citing “increasingly severe crackdowns” on the right to peaceful protest and widespread derision of “environmental defenders” by “the media and political figures.”
While the U.N. adviser’s two-page statement does not single out any individuals, several leading government figures have fiercely criticized environmental protesters in recent months. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has branded disruptive environmental protesters “eco-zealots” and former Energy Secretary Grant Shapps called campaign organization Just Stop Oil “an extremist group.”
“I am … distressed to see how environmental defenders are derided by some of the mainstream U.K. media and in the political sphere,” Forst’s statement said.
“By deriding environmental defenders, the media and political figures put them at risk of threats, abuse and even physical attacks from unscrupulous persons who rely on the toxic discourse to justify their own aggression.”
He also condemned “draconian” new laws aimed at curbing disruptive protests, singling out the government’s Public Order Act 2023 and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
“These developments are a matter of concern for any member of the public in the U.K. who may wish to take action for the climate or environmental protection,” his report said. “The right to peaceful protest is a basic human right. It is also an essential part of a healthy democracy.”
The position of U.N. special rapporteur for environmental defenders was created in 2022 to stand up for the rights of green protesters around the world.
Forst — a French human rights advocate who previously worked as a director of Amnesty International — added that he wanted to hold a “constructive dialogue” with the U.K. government to “ensure that members of the public in the U.K. seeking to protect the environment are not subject to persecution, penalization or harassment for doing so.”
U.K. ministers have clashed with U.N. special rapporteurs in the past, particularly over criticisms relating to poverty levels in the country.
The U.K. government has been approached for comment.