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Protesters rally in support of climate activist Deanna "Violet" Coco, who was sentenced to jail for helping to block the Sydney Harbour Bridge, outside the Downing Centre court building in Sydney, Australia, December 13, 2022.  © 2022 David Gray/AFP via Getty Images

We all have an interest in supporting people who are pressing governments to meet their obligations on climate change, whether they are protesting in the street, bringing cases to court, or even carrying out civil disobedience.

Yet, as the climate crisis worsens, the civic space for climate protests is shrinking. Instead of focusing on meeting their commitments to reduce climate change, governments are threatening environmental protectors—from Indigenous communities defending their ancestral lands to young activists protesting the expansion of fossil fuels—with intimidation, legal harassment, and at times deadly violence.

New forms of attacks are emerging, like the use of counterterrorism laws against climate activists, who are vilified in public and political discourse. And governments have been ratcheting-up their repression of such protests.

In Australia, regulations and new laws have been adopted in several states with the aim of dismantling "unauthorized" protests and penalizing protesters.

In 2022, the New South Wales state government introduced laws and penalties specifically targeting protesters who blocked roads and ports, threatening them with up to two years in prison and $14,000 fines. While people committing violent common crimes like assault could avoid being sent to jail, activists have been sent to maximum security prisons for months. Despite the Australian Supreme Court's doubts about the constitutionality of some of these state laws, they remain in effect.

In the United Kingdom, a series of laws restricting the right to protest were enacted over the past several years, restricting and even banning "noisy" or "disruptive" public assemblies, amid an ongoing crackdown on climate change protesters. In 2023, the government adopted the controversial Public Order Act, further criminalizing people's right to peaceful protest. In December, a peaceful climate protester, who took part in a slow march on a public road for approximately 30 minutes, was sentenced to six months in prison under this law. The police have been granted greater powers to restrict peaceful protests.

Across Europe, other repressive laws and practices have been adopted—environment movements criminalized or shut down, environment defenders classified as "climate extremists," and considered "terrorist threats," in addition increasing prosecutions, police brutality, and judicial intimidation. Last June, the French government dissolved by ministerial decree Soulèvements de la Terre, an environmental umbrella group of grassroots civil activism in the country. In one bright spot, France's highest administrative court overturned the dissolution.

This wave of repression is not limited to wealthier nations.

In Uganda, environmental defenders and anti-fossil fuel activists are routinely facing threats and arbitrary arrests for raising concerns over the East African Crude Oil Pipeline—one of the largest and most controversial fossil fuel projects currently under development globally. Student activists protesting the pipeline have been charged with the colonial-era "common nuisance" offense, which the government has been using to suppress peaceful protests.

In India, greater governmental control over online content, including by the recently enacted Information Technology Rules, has put climate activists at risk. Environmental rights defenders have also faced harassment due to arbitrary regulations limiting the use of foreign funds to support local campaigns.

In response to these crackdowns, the challenge for the human rights movement is to respond with urgency to make their voices heard.

The international human rights community—individuals, non-governmental organizations, and relevant human rights institutions—needs to do more to press governments to respond to environmental protests by complying with their obligations to deal with climate change instead of treating environmental defenders and their movements as terrorists, extremists, or criminals.

In this regard, initiatives like the Escazú Agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Aarhus Convention in Europe play a central role as a powerful advocacy tool for the international human rights community seeking wider protection when demanding ambitious climate policies from governments. The Aarhus Convention has been ratified by 47 countries, including the European Union, since it entered into force in October 2001. The newer Escazú Agreement has 15 ratifications to date.

These international agreements aim to promote transparency, public participation, and access to justice in environmental matters. By empowering communities and individuals to voice their concerns and hold governments and corporations accountable, these treaties serve as an important reminder to governments of their international obligations to address climate change as well as to respect and protect defenders' basic rights to exercise freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.

These conventions can help, but even within Latin America, key Amazon nations such as Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have not ratified. And there's no equivalent regional convention for Africa, and the conversation is only just now beginning in Asia. For the human rights movement, there is plenty more work to be done.

The Aarhus Convention includes a way for environmental defenders and protesters to raise their protection concerns with the appointment of a "special rapporteur." This mandate includes protecting environmental defenders from threats that result from their opposition to specific activities that are harmfully affecting them, such as an oil drilling project, a mine, or a foreign construction project in countries which are parties to the convention. That allows the new rapporteur to not only address concerns with states, but also discuss with companies how to make sure that violations against defenders will not happen again. The special rapporteur's mandate also covers corporations whose headquarters are in one of the 46 countries that have ratified the Aarhus Convention even when they are operating elsewhere.

Governments and policymakers around the world should honor their promises to protect not only the Earth but also the people, many of them youth, who tirelessly work to safeguard our planet and its inhabitants from the harm of the climate crisis.

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