Throughout Europe, we see more and more images in the media of activists who throw soup on paintings or glue themselves to roads. These actions grab our attention: they can trigger indignation because their purpose is sometimes difficult to understand and provoke irritation if they disrupt our daily lives.

They are what we call acts of civil disobedience: their purpose is to denounce an injustice by intentionally breaking the law in a non-violent way. A well-known example in history is Rosa Parks’ refusal to leave her bus seat, violating a law that required racial segregation in buses. Participating in an unauthorised protest, covering an oil company’s building with black paint, interrupting a sporting event: all these are forms of civil disobedience used by activists today.

Illegal actions are sometimes legitimate. While one may disagree with some of these actions, acknowledging their legitimacy is key to understand what environmental activists stand for and why they fight for it that way. If governments fail to understand that, they will fail to adequately respond to civil disobedience.

Why are some activists willing to take the risk of breaking the law? Because their sense of emergency and feeling of there being no other choice are stronger than the fear of being arrested. Those who block roads or tie themselves to trees are moved by a sense of urgency and even a duty: defending our planet and its species, including humankind. They try to convey this message to governments and ask them to act. They denounce inaction and demand environmental justice. And the reason why they choose civil disobedience is because they perceive that the legal forms of dialogue with those who govern are broken and have failed them as citizens. As Martin Luther King once wrote “the time is right to do what is right”.

Unfortunately, faced with these modes of action, many governments try to dissuade activists by penalising them. In each visit I have made as Special Rapporteur, I have heard testimonies describing a similar trend. A number of European countries are developing laws and policies to punish civil disobedience more severely. Italy is not immune from this trend.

Several legislative developments are currently ongoing in Italy. Recently, a bill that creates a new crime of damage to cultural and artistic goods was submitted to the Italian Senate. If passed, it would allow the authorities to arrest activists for throwing paint on a building and to sentence them to up to a year in prison. This bill comes a week after the police searched the homes of activists who threw paint on Palazzo Vecchio. It is not the first worrying signal of the growing criminalisation of environmental defenders in Italy. More and more frequently, those who peacefully protest against an oil company are fined or even banned from a city for opposing a project harmful to the environment.

An act is disobedient when it intentionally breaks the law: Rosa Parks would not be doing anything illegal if she sat at the front of a bus today. Paradoxically, while trying to prevent civil disobedience by restricting the exercise of freedoms of expression, assembly or association, countries expand the scope of what constitutes civil disobedience: more actions fall in this category by becoming illegal. When peaceful protests are banned, protesting becomes an act of civil disobedience. Climate activists should not be banned from a city for that. We should all be concerned of where that leads us.

Without fail, criminalisation via the law goes hand-in-hand with the delegitimization of environmental defenders via the language, with the discourse depicting environmental defenders as criminals and “ecoterrorists”. These trends mutually reinforce one another: the words used to describe environmental defenders impact how our legal systems treat them. This is what I am witnessing throughout Europe: the more that public officials use these words, the more that environmental defenders are treated as criminals. These discourses and the accompanying vilification campaigns are a threat to democracy.

Civil disobedience is an essential component of democracy. Those who resort to civil disobedience do so in the public interest, despite the personal risks. We must protect them. States must improve their response to the mobilisation of activists and refrain from adopting laws and practices that criminalise them. The judicial treatment of civil disobedience deserves careful reflection. Some good practices exist in Canada or Germany, where judges have given only symbolic sentences to peaceful climate activists, in acknowledgment that that their motivations were just.

Throughout Europe, discussions must start to better take into account what environmental defenders stand for, why they are using civil disobedience to fight for it, and how authorities need to adapt their practices accordingly. Discrediting and penalising those who fight for the future of our planet and of us all can never be the right answer.

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention

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