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Germany Prosecutes Environmental Defenders

Indictment of Last Generation Sets Dangerous Precedent

Police officers remove an activist of the "Letzte Generation" as they protest for climate action in Berlin, Germany September 28, 2023. © 2023 Lisi Niesner/Reuters

German environmental activists are facing increasingly harsh rhetoric and legal action from authorities as they mobilize to confront the climate crisis.

Last week, on May 21, Germany’s efforts to curb environmental activism took a disturbing turn when authorities used an offence typically reserved for prosecutorial pursuit of serious organized crime to indict Letzte Generation (Last Generation), a climate activist group known for disruptive protests such as roadblocks and other acts of civil disobedience, as a criminal organization. A conviction under federal law would pave the way for prosecuting anyone who participates in or supports Letzte Generation, including administratively or financially.

This heavy-handed approach reflects a troubling trend in Europe of stifling civil society and climate activism. Such actions chill public participation in protests against state policies or state inaction on a range of urgent issues.

The investigation into Letzte Generation as a criminal organization has involved armed police conducting predawn raids, storming private apartments while the activists were still asleep, and granting warrants for police to surveil the group’s communications, including calls made with media.

Last year the group’s website was temporarily seized during a fundraising campaign, with a notice from the police falsely labeling Letzte Generation a criminal organization and stating any donation constitutes illegal support for crime. This move by the police, despite no judicial assessment of the charges having taken place, exposes a deeply worrying bias against the group and raises questions about whether authorities are respecting due process.

International law protects the right to public participation in environmental matters and recognizes peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience as a legitimate form of assembly. Disruptions like traffic blockades, while inconvenient, generally do not constitute violence under international standards, although damage to or destruction of private or public property may.

While civil disobedience often involves breaking national laws, authorities are required to respond proportionately, giving due weight to the right to protest and the importance to the public interest of the issues at stake.

The government’s extreme response to Letzte Generation’s activism appears disproportionate, threatens the very right to protest, and smears climate activists when their cause has never been more urgent. Instead of intimidating environmental defenders, Germany should live up to its commitment to ambitious climate action and investigate the concerns that groups like Letzte Generation raise.

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