Saving our right to save the planet

As an environmental justice organisation, Friends of the Earth is fighting to protect our right to protest, along with all human rights. Find out how the UK government is threatening our rights and freedoms.
  Published:  24 Oct 2023    |      7 minute read

After the horrors of the Holocaust, human rights were set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These protections were enshrined in UK law in the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) but are now threatened by the current government.

This threat comes at a time when the climate crisis is worsening. More than ever, we need to defend our hard-fought rights to have our voices heard and protect our planet.

Why are human rights important?

Human rights have often been used to make legal rulings that have positive implications for the environment. In particular, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association have been used to protect our ability to effect change. The right to life and right to respect for private and family life have also been used to protect people from an unhealthy environment.

For example, the inquest into the death of 9-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah found that she’d died as a direct result of air pollution. This was the first ruling of its kind and the inquest was mandated by the breaching of her most fundamental human right, the right to life. Other examples are the Campaign against Climate Change’s "Time to Act" march in 2015 and Chris Packham’s "People’s Walk for Wildlife" in 2018. Both were able to use the right to assembly and association to show that they shouldn’t have to pay thousands of pounds for temporary road closures, enabling these 2 marches to go ahead.

There have been many other cases outside the environmental movement where people have been empowered by the UK’s Human Rights Act to seek justice. Some key examples include:

  • Hillsborough disaster – a second inquiry using the Human Rights Act’s right to life resulted in an “unlawfully killed” verdict for 96 Liverpool supporters who died.
  • Do-not-resuscitate orders, which now have to be discussed with patients due to the Human Rights Act.
  • The Human Rights Act is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland.
  • Justice for Zahid Mubarek, the victim of a racist murder in Feltham Young Offenders. The right to life and the need to investigate a death in which a state is implicated were used to order a public inquiry.

Repealing the UK Human Rights Act or leaving the ECHR could reduce our ability to secure lasting change to law and policy. And people’s lives, rights and freedoms will be under threat.

How are protest rights under threat?

Despite the importance of human rights for people and planet, the government is restricting civic space, protest rights and campaigning through the introduction of new laws.

What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act?

The government passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSCA) in 2022. The police can now impose conditions on protests they deem too noisy, even if they’re non-violent. Protesters could be prosecuted for breaching police conditions, such as the time a protest starts or finishes, or the number of attendees allowed, even if they had no idea the conditions had been imposed.

A group of people, different ages and ethnicities, wearing face masks and holding placards. The main placard reads "811,833 say defend our right to protest' and others are holding smaller placards with reasons why they are protesting which aren't legible.
People protesting the Policing Bill
Credit: Megan Barclay, Friends of the Earth

The new vaguely-defined offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” could be interpreted in many ways, but it’s intended to target non-violent direct action with a sentence of up to 10 years. So blocking roads could now mean a long prison sentence.

Most recently, the government lowered the threshold at which a protest is deemed to cause “serious disruption”. If a protest merely causes “more than minor” disruption, the police can now impose conditions.

The Act also created a criminal offence for residing on or intending to reside on land without consent or with a vehicle. This heavily impacts Gypsy and Traveller communities’ nomadic way of life and will also impact environmental protestors, for whom camps are an important means of protest.

What is the Public Order Act?

Recently, the government passed the even more authoritarian Public Order Act 2023. It has given the police extensive new powers to stop and search protesters. Specific individuals could even be banned from protesting. And new “locking on” offences could threaten protesters simply linking arms, or see people arrested for carrying tape, string or a bicycle lock near a protest.

Since the very foundations of non-violent protest are being dismantled, these laws will either criminalise people for non-violent actions or deter them from taking part in peaceful protests if it means running the risk of arrest, invasive stop and search, imprisonment or large fines.

Just days after the Act became law, it was used to arrest and detain 6 members of anti-monarchy group Republic for 16 hours during King Charles’s coronation. The Metropolitan Police claimed that the straps the protesters were using to hold their placards together could be used to lock on and disrupt the event. But there was no evidence of this, and the protesters were eventually released without charge, hours after the event had ended.

This example demonstrates how easy the Act makes it for the police to arrest peaceful protesters. Friends of the Earth often brings placards to demonstrations, sometimes held together in bundles during transport, just as Republic’s were. The vague wording of the Act puts protesters who have no intention of causing disruption at risk of arrest.

Demonstrators holding a banner that reads "People and planet over power and profit" and other placards
Action against Unilever's links to palm oil and human rights abuses
Credit: Friends of the Earth

And the assault against protest rights in the UK hasn’t gone unnoticed internationally. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the legislation to be repealed, stating that the “new law imposes serious and undue restrictions on these rights that are neither necessary nor proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose as defined under international law”.

Which other rights are threatened?

The government isn’t stopping there. It’s introduced the requirement of photographic voter ID, which has recently promoted government's own watchdog, the Electoral Commission, to highlight that this has caused problems for disabled voters, Black and ethnic minority and LGBTQIA+ communities, young people and unemployed people. Other restrictions have also been made to judicial review. These new measures limit people’s ability to make their voices heard on the streets and at the ballot box, and restrict access to justice in the courts.

Its anti-boycott bill to limit public bodies from undertaking boycotts, divestment and sanctions could have serious implications for fossil fuel divestment and campaigns that support the boycott of goods for environmental, human rights and ethical reasons.

Threats to the Human Rights Act and ECHR

After abandoning an attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act, MPs and ministers including Home Secretary Suella Braverman are now starting to call for the UK to leave the ECHR altogether. We’re deeply concerned that the Conservative Party may choose to make leaving the ECHR, among other so-called “culture war” issues, key elements of its platform at the next general election. Indeed, we’re concerned it’s already laying the ground for this by chipping away at these rights through legislation that’ll impact prisoners, migrants and refugees.

What is the Illegal Migration Act?

The Illegal Migration Act impacts the rights of thousands of the most vulnerable in our society, just because of the way they arrive in the UK. This includes people fleeing countries known to be unsafe, as well as victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. It creates a 2-tier system in which the State chooses who gets access to key protections in the Human Rights Act. The Rwanda deportation scheme and refugee prison barge demonstrate how the government is already infringing on fundamental rights.

After the Act became law, the UN Refugee Agency and Human Rights Office immediately issued a statement calling for it to be reversed. They cite serious concerns about it extinguishing access to asylum for those arriving irregularly who passed through a safe country, barring them from refugee protections and human rights claims, sweeping new detention powers, and the impact on unaccompanied/ separated children and victims of modern-day slavery.

Climate impacts are destroying livelihoods and forcing people to move. Rather than addressing the real crises of our day, the climate and cost-of-living crises, the government is ramping up attacks on migrants. Find out more about the link between climate, migration and refugees and why the UK has a responsibility to do better for refugees.

How freedom is “obstructed” in the UK

With all these threats to our rights, it’s no surprise that the UK has had its rating of fundamental freedoms downgraded from “narrowed” to “obstructed” in a new report by the international watchdog CIVICUS Monitor. According to the report, the government's new laws led to this downgrade.

The UK has historically been regarded as one of the world’s most stable, liberal democracies. But the downgrade to “obstructed” means civic freedoms, in particular the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, is being undermined. Our "obstructed" status is shared with countries such as Hungary under Viktor Orban.

How Friends of the Earth is fighting for our rights

This doesn’t mean we’ll stop fighting for our freedoms. As we face such a severe attack on our rights, it’s never been more important to speak up.

Although it’ll become harder, protest isn’t banned. So, our incredible Friends of the Earth network will continue standing up for people and planet. And we’ve updated our protest guidance to help you navigate these new laws.

Group of people holding banners and flags at a protest and raising their fists
Protest against the Policing Bill
Credit: Megan Barclay, Friends of the Earth

We’ll also continue to look at the potential for legal action to protect people’s rights. We have a long record of challenging unjust laws in the courts. In February 2023 Friends of the Earth supported an appeal brought by 3 Gypsy and Traveller charities at the Supreme Court. The case concerns injunctions against “persons unknown”.

In recent years there’s been a dramatic increase in the use of these injunctions by private companies and public authorities, which have targeted both the Gypsy and Traveller community and environmental protestors. These injunctions are brought against unidentified people or groups, but who are defined according to the actions they take in a specific geographical area, such as an encampment or a blockade. They’ve also been extensively used by fossil fuel companies against community-based anti-fracking campaigns, and by HS2 across the whole of its proposed route. We should hear the outcome of this legal case in the coming months.

This is the wrong focus for the government during the cost-of-living and climate crises. Instead of repealing our human rights, it should be protecting nature and getting us off fossil fuels. Instead of locking up protesters who want warm homes as energy companies make record profits, the government should insulate homes and invest in renewable energy.

Sadly, it looks like we’ll be forced to take action to protect our rights for the foreseeable future. But you can help us take a stand for people and planet.

The government is threatening our rights and freedoms, and our ability to demand climate action

The government is threatening our rights and freedoms, and our ability to demand climate action