Long sentences handed to two Just Stop Oil protesters for scaling the M25 bridge over the Thames are a potential breach of international law and risk silencing public concerns about the environment, a UN expert has said.
In a strongly worded intervention, Ian Fry, the UN’s rapporteur for climate change and human rights, said he was “particularly concerned” about the sentences, which were “significantly more severe than previous sentences imposed for this type of offending in the past”.
He said: “I am gravely concerned about the potential flow-on effect that the severity of the sentences could have on civil society and the work of activists, expressing concerns about the triple planetary crisis and, in particular, the impacts of climate change on human rights and on future generations.”
In October last year, Marcus Decker and Morgan Trowland stopped traffic for almost 40 hours after they climbed the cables supporting the Queen Elizabeth II suspension bridge in Dartford, Kent, in a protest in support of the Just Stop Oil climate activist group.
The bridge, one of the UK’s busiest, is where the M25 motorway that encircles London crosses the Thames.
Both men were convicted of causing a public nuisance, with Decker imprisoned for two years and seven months and Trowland for three years. They were the longest sentences yet passed on non-violent protesters in the UK.
Noting Decker and Trowland’s rights to peaceful protest, Fry asked the UK government to explain “why, in light of the current climate crisis, it was necessary to introduce and pass the Public Order Act and how both the Public Order Act and the sentencing of Mr Decker and Mr Trowland are compatible with international norms and standards”, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
He demanded ministers indicate “what steps have been taken … to ensure that non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and all human rights defenders can carry out their peaceful work free from threat, violence, harassment or retaliation or any sort”.
The UK government has not replied to Fry’s letter, which was sent on 15 August. A letter sent on 22 December calling for explanations of how provisions in the Public Order Act could be reconciled with international human rights law, signed by Fry and four other rapporteurs, also remains unanswered, Fry’s letter noted.
The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil said: “Our politicians are planning to kill countless million souls, and destroy the rights and freedoms that we have struggled to achieve. That is the brutal reality of climate collapse, hinted at by Dr Ian Fry.
“If the government is willing to ignore a letter from the UN what chance they will listen to ordinary people writing letters to their MPs. We need to get on the streets, we need to resist and stand with those political prisoners jailed for defending their future. Slow march with us in London, from Trafalgar Square … 12 noon every day.”