Just Stop Oil activists have been staging slow marching protests almost every day since April. Image: Just Stop Oil
Slow walking protests are “legitimate and important” and the UK government should not restrict protests that cause disruption, the UN has said, as MPs vote in favour of a new measure to criminalise the form of protest.
Clément Voule, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, told The Big Issue the government’s “apparent targeting” of climate protesters was “particularly concerning”.
The House of Commons voted for new legislation to lower the threshold for serious disruption on Monday, as the government attempts to give police clarity to “impose conditions on harmful protests” amid Just Stop Oil’s campaign of slow walking protests.
Peers will vote on whether to scrap the measures on Tuesday evening in a showdown billed as a “make or break moment for parliamentary democracy.”
“Peaceful civil disobedience, including slow walking protests, is an important and legitimate form of protest. Activists and human rights defenders may resort to peaceful civil disobedience, which may cause disruptions, as an effective means of reminding governments of their obligations and pushing for policy changes. This is crucial to advance important issues, including climate justice,” Voule said.
“The legislation’s apparent targeting of those protesting to advance climate justice is particularly concerning as the current climate crisis poses a real public security risk, and governments should address these issues, not block and hinder those searching to tackle them.”
Activists from Just Stop Oil have been staging slow marching protests almost every day since April 24, a campaign which has seen 86 arrests and prompted angry reactions from motorists caught up in tailbacks on the capital’s streets.
A previous attempt to criminalise slow walking protests was rejected by peers as part of the Public Order Bill, but has been brought back by the government as the Public Order Act 1986 (Serious Disruption to the Life of the Community) Regulations 2023.
Labour has indicated it won’t vote against the slow walking measures when they enter the House of Lords on Tuesday evening, paving the way for them to pass into law.
Voule, who previously warned the Public Order bill would result in “undue and grave restrictions to human rights”, said disruptive protests were a part of living in a democratic society.
“UK authorities should not restrict protests on the basis that they may cause disruptions, recalling that a certain level of disruption to ordinary life must be tolerated in any democratic society in the interest of the exercise of rights,” he said.
He added: “Limitations to peaceful assembly on the grounds of broader and more general offences of nuisance and disorderly conduct must be tightly defined in order to comply with human rights law and prevent undue interference with the right to peaceful assembly.”
Green party peer Jenny Jones has introduced a “fatal motion”, or motion to decline, which, if supported by peers, would stop the measures. A petition calling on Labour to support Jones’s motion has gained over 50,000 signatures.
“This is a make or break moment for parliamentary democracy. The Lords defeated the government on this issue and the minister is now acting like a seventeenth century monarch by using a decree to reverse that vote,” Jones told The Big Issue.
“What is the point of Parliament if a Minister can just ignore the outcome of debates and votes by imposing draconian laws on the public?”
Despite voting against the slow walking legislation in the commons to make its position clear, Labour said it will not block the revived slow walking measure in the Lords.
Lord Vernon Coaker, Labour’s shadow home office minister, told the BBC: “We certainly aren’t going to vote to kill it. Our position is very clear. The government have brought it back in what we regard as an underhand way.”
Instead, Labour is putting forward a “motion to regret” in the Lords, allowing peers to put their concerns on record while not opposing the new law.
Coaker added: “We’re not going to fall into the elephant trap of the government using this to show us standing in the way of the democratic will of the elected government, or the elephant trap of them saying we’re somehow in the pockets of Just Stop Oil.”
The government says the new law, which takes the form of a statutory instrument, provides clarity for police to “impose conditions on harmful protests”.
Voule also warned against cracking down on protest rights to win over voters.
“Attempts to curtail the exercise of these rights should not be used as a political tool to influence constituents in any way,” he said.
“I remind authorities and politicians that the UK has the positive obligation to enable, facilitate and protect the rights of peaceful assembly and of association, which constitute a key democratic and participatory tool, enabling civil society and society as a whole to express and organise itself. It is a fundamental tool for any democratic society to thrive and be resilient in the face of crises.”
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