Eco Protesters — Do they have human rights protection?

By Ben Palmer and Tayla Germaine — Gordon


When we talk about climate change and in particular when we examine climate change laws and litigation, it can be argued we overlook the importance of environmental protests and social movements. Some of the most important issues in climate change, especially in recent years, would not have garnered the same attention and press, as well as in some cases, changes of the law if it weren’t for these organizations.

Surely then if protest plays such a large role in the narrative of environmental change, the right to do so should be protected heavily. The fact that these social movements have such power to be able to bring the problem to the masses, in a way it may never have been highlighted otherwise, means that the right to do so is so important. Unfortunately, in many instances this is not the case and many of these protestors face persecution in many different forms from legal consequences to loss of freedom and in some extreme cases loss of life.

Examples of persecution

Suren Gazaryan-

Suren Gazaryan

“It has been almost impossible now to object to grand projects which have authorities behind them, people are threatened and intimidated”- this a quote by zoologist and environmental activist Suren Gazaryan. Gazaryan was forced to seek political asylum in western Europe due to the fact he was protesting for protected wilderness in Russia that was due to be destroyed, so that a mansion for Vladimir Putin and venues for the winter Olympics could be built.

Gazaryan and other leading Russian eco activists had led a critic of the corruption around the winter Olympic games and the destructive developments along the black sea coast. He and others released pictures of the effects on the natural landscapes the Olympic games had had. “The group published a report on the environmental impact of the games, citing the destructive impact of development in protected areas, the degradation of habitats for rare animals and plants, air and water pollution and the loss of Sochi’s potential as a health resort.” — The Guardian John Vidal.

effects of the olympic games

Gazaryan, was given a three-year conditional sentence for his organization of the protest against the allegedly illegal seizure of forest land for the mansion and was later charged with damaging a construction site. This why he was forced to choose political asylum or losing three years of his freedom.

“Amnesty International believes the authorities have increasingly harassed several members of the NGO in the run-up to the games, with repeated arrests and brief detentions, personal searches, questioning of activists themselves and of their close relatives by police, and unofficial warnings from police and security officials to abstain from protesting during the Sochi Olympics,” said an Amnesty spokesman.
“If you want to be assertive in Russia you have to be careful. You cannot appeal against official projects. The situation is very difficult. All criticism is suppressed. There can be no opposition to the state. Only a very few articles appear in the media,” said Gazaryan.

It is clear from Gazaryan story that in many cases this right to protest for the preservation and protection of the environment is not guarded well worldwide and that these environmental activists go out every day and risk their lives for greater good of the planet. Surely they should be protected?

Berta Cáceres

A more recent and tragic example of persecution due to economic activism was the brutal assassination of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres at just 44. “My daughter was systematically persecuted for years, but still, I didn’t believe they would actually kill her,” said Berta Flores, 83 Cáceres’ mother. Honduras is notoriously known to be the deadliest country for environmental campaigners. Between the years 2010 and 2014 over 100 environmental activists were nit imprisoned but killed in Honduras. It is reported that 98% of all violent crimes in the country go unsolved.

Many people believe she was murdered for her activism and that the Government had a large role to play in her death. They failed to protect her time and time again despite constant death threats, that only intensified in the days leading up to her death. The year before her death she had won the Goldman environmental prize for her work, a lawyer who worked with her said “Leaders are murdered to terrorize communities, contaminate organizations and squash resistance movements. This is the pattern.”

There has been international pressure to catch and detain the assassins, however the people who were initially detained were people who worked alongside her as close allies. The pattern seems to be frame those who were closest to her to derail the entire movement and deter others from speaking out against government back projects.

There is an underlying theme that ties these two stories together, this being that the countries they occurred in are widely known as countries that are against open protest against the Government and that actions like this can get you imprisoned or killed. Both activists seemed very aware of this. Unfortunately, though there is a higher protection and freedom to do protest in other countries across the globe, especially in the west, does not mean that activists are completely safe. In fact, situations like those above occur all over the world even in places with the most robust protection of human rights.

For example, in the UK there is freedom of expression covered by Article 10 ECHR, however new laws increase the costs organizations would incur should they lose an environmental case. Though this does not directly hinder the ability to protest and does not have the same tragic outcomes as above the effect is the same. It is another way to dissuade those for standing up for the environment as loosing will greatly dent your pockets

The power of protest?

protestors at Standing rock.

There are countless examples of situations where environmental protest has brought about great awareness and ultimately change, however most recently the story that has caught everyone’s eyes and hearts across the globe is the Dakota access pipeline protest at standing rock. This pipeline was planned to run under the part of Lake Oahe near the standing rock Indian reserve. Many in the standing rock tribe believed this would constitute a threat to their clean water supply as well as their ancient burial grounds.

The protests began earlier this year and has captured mass attention, however a very small amount of coverage was provided by US news until early September. There have been several incidents that threatened the lives of the protestors and infringed their human rights at the hands of local government. There has been use of attack dogs and armed soldiers along with the police in riot gear clearing camps of people in the direct line of the proposed pipe. Late November brought a fluctuation of protestors from all over joining in solidarity, this included celebrities and even veterans. With the temperature dropping well below freezing, the police used water cannons on protestors which also brought significant media attention.

The growing coverage and disturbing images of how the protestors were being treated placed large pressure on the Obama administration to do something. On December 4th of this year under President Barack Obama’s administration the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for continued construction of the pipeline. An environmental impact assessment will also be conducted. Some believe this is a win but many protestors still remain in the camps, convinced this is not over. This story changes every day and it seems these protestors are right it is far from over.

Though this is a breakthrough it what seems like a very long struggle, it is merely a holt not a complete stop and is something that the current president-elect Donald Trump could change once he assumes his position in the white house. Donald Trump has made it clear his stance on climate change, that being he doesn’t believe it is real, could not only overturn this and have the rest of the pipeline built but could be putting all environmental activism in the US at great risk.

Donald trump on climate chnage.

Protection for protest?

protestors at Heathrow airport

Freedom of expression and the right to protest is important and is protected in law. Such rights are so fundamental they are protected by human rights provisions such as article 11 of the ECHR. However, when can such rights be limited? And should they be limited at all? The ECHR allows for such rights to be limited ‘when ‘necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’. This is a very complicated and messy situation when it comes to climate change protests. Why? Because in a large amount of cases they often infringe and tamper with other people’s rights and daily lives. Some protests can be violent, which has led to such participants involved in such protests being labelled as ‘eco — terrorists’. Many other legal mechanisms exist which aim to protect the right to protest and the freedom of expression/speech such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights and the Charter of the Fundamental rights of the European Union.

Police in the UK arrested 15 people after the possibility of Heathrow airport getting a third runway (which has now been approved). They are protesting — which is perfectly okay, right? The 1000s of cars that were stuck in traffic for hours may not agree. It could be argued their right to liberty was infringed and people wanting to go to work, school, shopping all had to stop their lives for a small number of people laying in the middle of a motorway. Whose right prevails? The law should strike a careful balance in giving rights to the minority who wish to protest and the majority who do not want to be involved.

The environmental group argued the third runway was against the UK’s ‘own laws on climate change’, and the yet the protesters committed offences involving obstruction of the highway and public order offences. This example protest shows the difficulty of balancing the rights to protest concerning climate change, and the rest of the general public. If the government detained a number of people unlawfully, and there was protests as a result — it would seem the protests would be seen as more ‘justified’, whereas when a protest is related to climate change there seems to be a lower threshold of tolerance towards such protests by law enforcement agencies — but is this they are far more dramatic and more severe?

Many argue there should be better legal protection for protesters as freedom of expression is a fundamental component to democracy. An explicit human right to a healthy living environment is a possible solution, which should include a right to protest about such issue — or at least clarify what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to eco — protest. Of course, any sort of violence or vandalism should be outlawed just like any form of protest. Human rights academics such as John Knox have researched the right to a healthy living environment. If such a universal right existed with legal status eco protests would arguably be better protected, as they would be protesting against an infringement of definite, clear and explicit human rights. And currently, one may argue the law is very messy and so it is unclear whether there is a human right to a healthy living environment exists. Portugal adopted such a right in their constitution and documents, which creates a clearer situation.

“Eco — terrorists?”

The difficulty is establishing the dividing line between a protester with rights and an eco-terrorist with little protection. The issue has got so serious in the eyes of the law enforcement organizations such as the FBI have released reports on how to counter the threat. However, this is not the most adequate response. By treating eco — protesters as terrorists is further alienating them and pushing their views and methods to be more extreme. In Australia, green energy activists are contained in a government report titled ‘Preventing Violent extremism and radicalization in Australia’ — are they really the big terrorists that government makes out to be? And do they pose the same threat that illegal terrorist networks do such as ISIS?

It is evident over the years governments are clamping down on such environmental organizations. This “graph shows the incidents caused by Eco terrorists in the United States” -

Protesters should be protected by human rights. One of the strongest arguments for this is everyone has the right to protest — and the most common form of protest is about human rights infringements. Protesting about a right to a healthy living environment should be no exception, as mentioned in C. Kaupa’s blog post on human rights and climate change abuse of the environment directly leads to lesser access to water and food, and damages the environment we live in. However, in many people’s view the differentiating factor between a green protester and an eco — terrorist is the latter is concerned with violence and social disruption, which is unacceptable, and so countries such as the UK moving protesters off main motorways may have the balance right. However, there must be an independent close watchdog to observe law enforcement agencies and governments to make sure peaceful protest on climate change issues is safeguarded.

Protestors should be protected by human rights — with the right to freedom of expression in protest as protected by treaties such as the ECHR only be limited where necessary and proportionate.

Ways Forward?

Protesters should be protected by human rights, despite there being no global law for a right to a healthy environment, there are several legal frameworks which indirectly give that right. One of the landmark instruments is the Paris agreement, which the central goal is to implement measures to not to allow a global temperature rise by 2 degrees Celsius.

Further protests are clearly essential to democracy — but more precisely it can be argued eco — protests feed directly into the United Nations conferences on the issue. Political representatives should represent the views of the people of the people — and there is no better right that displays the power of democracy than protest.


In conclusion, It seems to be evident that environmental protest is an issue that sometimes may be overlooked when discussing climate change with the masses but as we have seen people risk their lives, their freedom or their livelihood every time they wish to stand up for the environment. Surely there should be a right to protest for a better environment and though there are doubter’s, climate change and environmental change are very much real and the effects can be seen for yourself. We ask should there be blanket protection, well this question is multi layered and therefore it is difficult to come to one single conclusion. It is very difficult to achieve a fair balance to give those with a view a platform to protest but also to protect those who do not share the same view or who do not wish to get involved. When it comes to eco — protest the tricky issue is working out the dividing line between those who are simply protesting about environmental issues and those who are eco — terrorists. The right to protest should be protected, as it is a fundamental human right, and should only be limited when absolutely necessary, as quoting from the ECHR when it is ‘necessary in a democratic society’.

The Video

Here is a news story we have created to emphasis the arguments we have raised in the blog post. Everything in the video is fictional and been created to portray a dramatic message, please enjoy.