Beyond Civil Disobedience

“Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” — Oscar Wilde

There is a deeply worrying trend across Europe and beyond of meeting nonviolent civil disobedience with violent crackdowns, legislative changes to prohibit such acts, and disproportionate criminal sanctions.

Whatever people may feel about young activists throwing soup at artworks or glueing themselves to roads, and however inconvenienced people may be, that does not make these acts unlawful. Civil disobedience is a human right under international human rights laws, and a keystone in a functioning democracy.

If we take a broader perspective, we see that these young activists follow a long line of people who, over the centuries, have fought for justice, and through their courage and determination, helped secure human rights for everyone (while the majority of people frowned upon their actions). Yet again, many are uncomfortable with what is happening.

The violence with which police are meeting nonviolent activists, and the prosecutions that follow, should worry all of us. They are more akin to actions by totalitarian regimes. And it won’t only affect activists.

Numerous international human rights experts and institutions are calling on countries like the UK, France, Germany, Italy and others to respect their obligations under international human rights law. 

United Nations Expert in charge of protecting environmental campaigners, Michel Forst, explained that, at the UN, there is criteria to define civil disobedience: “it must be public, the people who are using civil disobedience must understand that they can be taken to court, it must not be violent, and it must try to change a legal situation which is considered unjust.” 

Alongside police crackdowns, of equal concern is the vilification campaigns by politicians on all sides, supported by mainstream media against those individual activists (who tend to grossly exaggerate the impact of small acts of defiance). Using language such as ‘eco-terrorism’ and ‘eco-zealots’ is inflammatory and leads to further polarisation in our already deeply divided societies. 

Not only are these responses irresponsible but it will only further the growing disillusionment many people feel towards democratic institutions. Furthermore, the attempts at repression won’t work, they won’t deter people from protesting, they’re more likely to embolden them, in fact. 

Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović says that many of the disgruntled individuals leading the protests, are disenfranchised children and young people and if “the root causes underlying their concerns are left unaddressed, sanctions are unlikely to deter them; if anything, repression will only fuel their frustration and strengthen their resolve.” 

We can look to historical examples of state responses to nonviolent disobedience like the apartheid regime in South Africa, to get a glimpse of what could be unfolding in the future. After years of brutal repression and the restriction of all means of lawful protest, a decision was made within the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, to establish uMkhonto we Sizwe, known as MK, the paramilitary branch which was to undertake acts of sabotage.  

During his trial, Mandela explained how all lawful modes of expressing opposition had been banned by legislation and why that led them to sabotage key government infrastructure. “I do not... deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression,” Mandela declared during his trial in 1964 where he would be sentenced to life imprisonment.  

The challenge we have in rich countries is that many people are not yet directly affected by climate change, and, because of this, are either unwilling to make any sacrifices or just don’t know what actions they could take that would actually have an impact. 

In parallel, the hatred of climate activists that is fuelled by politicians and the media, is leading to vigilante actions, often with rage, against those activists. But why is that? Where is this rage coming from?

Professor Tobias Singelnstein at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt, believes that people are realising that things will have to change, and these outbursts of rage appear because “people don’t want to know about what the climate crisis means for us and the fact that we are going to have to place restrictions on ourselves and simply won’t be able to continue to do certain things.”

He believes that these acts of civil disobedience are counter-productive because it shifts the debate away from the actual problem of the climate crisis and what needs to change, to specific individual actions. 

Extinction Rebellion in the UK recently made the decision to resort to less disruptive tactics to try to draw in more support from people who are otherwise uncomfortable with direct actions. Thousands of people joined a peaceful march, but it got no media coverage. 

So what do we do? Is it about the narrative, or is it about the tactics? All the interrelated crises we are facing are so complex that it’s difficult to know what it is we are asking for. Are we even able to create a coherent narrative? 

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Author and Scholar Andreas Malm, argues that social democracy works on the assumption that time is on our side - but we are running out of time. So, he asks, is it time for the climate movement to escalate: “When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands? Is there a good reason we have waited this long?” 

However uncomfortable many may feel about the idea of activists resorting to, say, acts of sabotage, perhaps this path is inevitable. Especially when large swathes of people, mostly young, may not have much of a bright future ahead of them and so have very little to lose. The question then will be: how will people in the human rights community respond? 

Words, Veronica Yates, Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes


‘Crackdowns on peaceful environmental protests should stop and give way to more social dialogue,’ Human Rights Comment by the Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, 2 June 2023. Read here.

‘It’s very dangerous to be an environmental activist in Latin America: if someone wants to kill you, they just pay a hitman $50,′ Patricia R. Blanco, El Pais, 5 June 2023. Read here.

“Germany cracks down on climate activists after Scholz calls protest group ‘nutty,’” Frank Jordans, AP, 24 May 2023. Read here

‘France must respect and promote right to peaceful protest: UN experts,’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 15 June 2023, Read here.

‘Mandela’s struggles for peace and justice in Africa,’ Lansana Gberie, Africa Renewal, United Nations. Read here.

‘Nelson Mandela death: Excerpts of his Rivonia speech’ BBC, 7 December 2013. Read here.

‘A Climate of Repression: With vigilantism against climate activists mounting, is the German state’s response proportionate?’ Tobias Singelnstein, Henning Obens, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 6 June 2023. Read here.

‘Climate change protest: a single radical gets more media coverage than thousands of marchers,’ The Conversation, Andrew Matthew Macdonald, Read here.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm.

Understanding: Facts and Campaigns

‘Welcome to the Great Unraveling: Navigating the Polycrisis of Environmental and Social Breakdown,’ Richard Heinberg and Asher Miller, Post Carbon Institute, 15 June 2023. Download the report here.

State of Climate Action 2022, New Climate Institute, Visit here

Stop EACOP: Resisting Corporate Colonialism, campaign: 

Energy Profits: History-making profits. World-ending emissions. Visit here.

‘Big polluters’ share prices fall after climate lawsuits, study finds,’ Isabella Kaminski, The Guardian, 22 May 2023. Read here.

Banking on Climate: The Dirty Dozen - The Worst Banks Since the Paris Agreement, visit here

Further Reading & Listening

‘Power, People & Planet Podcast on Civil Disobedience with Clare Farrell and Marta Benavides’, with Kumi Naidoo, 28 February 2023, listen here.

‘Decade of defiance: Ten years of reporting land and environmental activism worldwide,’ Global Witness, Sep 2022, Updated May 10 2023. Read here.

‘Memo to Just Stop Oil and everyone risking all to save the planet: we need a rethink,’ Feyzi Ismail, The Guardian, 7 December 2022. Read here.

‘Le maintien de l’ordre « à la française », un recours à la force assumé, à rebours d’autres pays européens,’ Anne Chemin, Le Monde, 14 April 2023. 

Australia: No Mercy for Climate Activists, Le Monde, 1 May 2023, Read online

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