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.
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
Amnesty International Australia has two only petitions that concerned people could sign. One of them relates to the current NSW situation of heavy penalties and police over-reach:
The second 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 recent police raid on a property in Colo, NSW, 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.
By Thea Ormerod
20 July, 2022