Democratic right to protest

New heavy penalties for nonviolent protest

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights two articles enshrine the right to protest:

Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 20: Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Peaceful protest has been an important tool that people’s movements have used to win many of the benefits we take for granted today: the 8-hour working day, women’s right to vote, First Nations peoples’ right to vote and it ended the war in Vietnam. People of faith were key participants in movements for which nonviolent protest was a critical part, eg, the US civil rights movement, the largely Catholic movement to liberate Poland from domination by Russia, and India’s movement for independence from British rule.

Today in various Australian States, laws have been passed to impose heavy penalties on certain kinds of non-violent protest against coal or gas mining or simply for stronger climate action. Governments are using their power against civil society groups wanting to see our precious climate and forests protected, and have aligned themselves with profit-seeking mining and logging companies. 

See more on laws in various States here.

Laws passed in 2019 in Queensland have been described in a letter from UN human rights experts as 'inherently disproportionate'. They said the legislation 'contains a number of provisions that unduly restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression'.

The letter said, 'We are seriously concerned that the act allows for the criminalisation of peaceful protests that may entail blocking access to roads or buildings; acts of civil disobedience; and non-violent direct action.'

In March, 2022, the NSW Parliament passed the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2022, which increased maximum penalties for certain kinds of non-violent protests to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine. In NSW this is a heavier penalty than for Driving Under the Influence. Compare these potential penalties with the $469 fine and 3 demerit points imposed on a driver who ran through Blockade Australia’s march in the Sydney CBD on 27th June.

The new legislation also expanded the types of locations that would be off-limits. Previously they were major bridges or tunnels, now they include roads, train stations, ports and public and private infrastructure. The regressive nature of these laws has been widely condemned.

This is part of a nationwide trend towards harsher penalties against peaceful community activists in various Australian States, unfortunately supported by both major political parties. The new laws have met with significant community opposition, including challenges in the High Court and currently before the Victorian and Tasmanian parliaments. 

For more detail, read here: https://www.geco.org.au/new_laws_criminalise_forest_protest

And Maddie's account of how the NSW laws affected her activism: http://honisoit.com/2023/02/activists-are-unfairly-targeted-by-new-protest-laws/ 

and here: https://probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2020/02/smear-campaign-against-green-activists-anti-protest-laws-and-media-restrictions-in-australia/ 

NSW Council for Civil Liberties https://www.nswccl.org.au/protect_the_right_to_protest 

Take Action

Amnesty International Australia has this petition that concerned people could sign. It responds to the fact that there are no federal laws protecting our freedom of speech or peaceful assembly. A Human Rights Act would enshrine our democratic freedoms in federal law. See https://action.amnesty.org.au/act-now/support-a-human-rights-act

More about recent developments in NSW

ARRCC is particularly concerned about the police raid on a property in Colo, NSW, in mid-2022 when climate activists were at the stage of planning and not actually engaged in protest action. The police were in an unmarked car, in camouflage and armed with guns, so the protesters felt intimidated (but remained non-violent). Read more in this ABC article. 30-40 activists were detained without charge for many hours in a wet field, with all comms devices confiscated; they arrested 8 people, two of whom were detained for a further 3 weeks until their court hearing.

In the days following the raid, ARRCC joined with the Sydney Catholic Justice and Peace Office, CANA, Amnesty International, AYCC, Greenpeace and others in signing this statement.

ARRCC continues to be concerned that police and some media are being heavy-handed with Blockade Australia as outlined in this Independent Australia article. Their tactics may be annoying, but they are non-violent climate activists and generally young people expressing their legitimate belief that Australia’s inaction on climate change is unconscionable in the light of the climate emergency we face.

Various everyday Australians have commented to me that Blockade Australia has staged very annoying protests. Protesters have long been annoying - 63% of Americans gave MLK an unfavourable rating in a poll taken in 1966, and peaceful anti-Vietnam War protesters in the US were labelled 'anarchists' and 'un-American'. Nonetheless, protests are an important part of the story of our collective moral progress.

For an excellent interview on the subject of harsher anti-protest legislation, we recommend listening to this ABC Late Night Live program which aired on 5th July, 2022. UK climate activist and Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, was interviewed about similar anti-protest laws in the UK, along with Sophie McNeill, at Human Rights Watch in Australia.  

ARRCC will be looking out for opportunities to resist these developments and stand in solidarity with those being unjustly treated.


Case of Deanna 'Violet' Coco

After abiding by strict bail conditions, on 2nd December 2022 climate protester Deanna 'Violet' Coco was sentenced to 15 months gaol with a 8 month non-parole period, for blocking one lane of traffic on the Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes. At the time, cars could still get through in the four other lanes in the same direction. Violet appealed but was expected to remained in custody until the hearing - in March, 2023!

See this Guardian article.

Violet was allowed out on bail in mid-December, 2022 after strong protests by civil society, including this joint letter signed signed by over 200 organisations.

On 15th March 2023, Violet's appeal was heard in the Downing Centre Court. The jail sentence was quashed. Violet was issued with a 12-month conditional release order after district court judge Mark Williams heard she had been initially imprisoned on false information provided by the NSW police.

Coco told reporters she would pursue compensation against the police after spending 13 days in prison. “Obviously we need to continue our right to protest. Protest is such an important part of our democracy,” she said.

ARRCC believes Violet's treatment by the police and the anti-protest laws that made this possible are most regrettable steps backwards for our democracy. This person was not being violent, only annoying. In fact, she was courageously standing up for a liveable planet, while the NSW State politicians who make these same laws also allow humanity's future to be jeopardised by the expansion of coal and gas mining and one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world.

By Thea Ormerod

ARRCC President