It has recently come to light that the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, Ian Fry, had sent a letter to the UK government warning them of stifling protest. This came after the UK courts issued prison sentences to Just Stop Oil activists following a peaceful march - a sentencing which the government supported.

It seems to me that a warning from the UN regarding protests to a supposedly democratic country is strong evidence that that country is being too harsh on protestors. However, I don't know if there is a precedent of this type of condemnation or not, or how significant it is.

1 Answer 1


Not very significant. The UN Special Rapporteur has no actual powers to effect change, as set out in the mandate given in RES/48/14.

Firstly it's worth noting the the Just Stop Oil protesters were not sentenced after a peaceful march. As your link points out, they blocked the Dartford Crossing for over 40 hours, at great risk and expense to the public, themselves, and the emergency services who had to remove them from the bridge.

Andrew Tettenborn, Professor of Law at Swansea University gave the following reasons why it's not surprising that the UK government apparently chose not to give much weight to Mr Fry's letter:

For one thing, it’s a bit difficult to see the connection between the freedoms of expression and assembly mentioned in Fry’s letter and the deliberate act of inconveniencing as many people as possible by blocking one of the country’s busiest roads for nearly two days. The reason we value free speech and assembly is precisely that they are non-invasive: they seek to persuade, not to coerce. If the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is now to be interpreted as requiring democratic governments to allow aggressive pressure groups to impose their views by force on the public whether their electors agree or not (which is doubtful), one can hardly blame the UK government for not being over-keen on obeying it to the letter. The government has every right to see this as an impertinent attempt by an international apparatchik to intervene in the detailed internal administration of this country of a kind that needs to be resisted hard.

Does it matter that the UN seems to be becoming increasingly foolish, selective and, frankly, irrelevant when it comes to matters such as free speech? Actually it does. There are plenty of states guilty on a regular basis of serious and violent suppression of dissent, including those guilty of nothing more than ordinary, non-coercive speech or membership of non-violent campaigning organisations. The UN retains the ability to do a great deal of good for freedom and world peace in such cases.

If so, however, it needs seriously to avoid frittering away what respect it still retains by intervening in the case of vociferous but undeserving organisations like JSO. The members of the Human Rights Council who control the appointment and activities of their special rapporteurs have the power discreetly to rein them in. They would do well to recall this. On the question whether the UN can remain as a credible organisation in the field of civil rights, the choice is, one suspects, largely theirs.

By way of comparison, Mr Fry's letter is far less significant, for example, than the UN's special international maritime court ruling against the UK in the case of the Chagos Islands back in 2021. In this scenario as well, the UK was under no obligation to comply with the ruling, as the UN is in the majority of cases involving the General Assembly and various "special rapporteurs" an impotent talking shop, so the ruling was comprehensively ignored.

The UK receives many derisory letters from UN special rapporteurs, for example from Philip Alston in 2019, Tendayi Achiume, also in 2019, and Olivier De Schutter in 2023. The majority of these are ignored by the UK government, and this latest one seems to be no different. The main difference so far appears to be that the letter has been both requested by and promoted by Just Stop Oil because it supports the group's members who have committed criminal offences obtaining special treatment from the court system.

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    "deliberate act of inconveniencing as many people as possible by blocking one of the country’s busiest roads for nearly two days" - yet UK politicians deliberately inconvenience as many people as possible every day, and don't get punished. Nov 22, 2023 at 12:00
  • Apologies I forgot to include this source, but Phoebe Plummer (the person who threw soup on the Van Gogh painting's glass cover) has been given a prison sentence for slow marching
    – DannyH
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:03
  • @DannyH that sentencing took place three months after Fry's letter was written though, so I think it's disingenuous to conflate the two.
    – Silver Fox
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:47
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    @DannyH Plummer is being held on remand pending trial because they are a serial offender and breacher of bail conditions. A normal procedure. Also, "in prison for slow marching" is propaganda. One could reasonably claim they are in prison for unlawfully preventing other people from exercising their liberty and going about their lawful business. Plummer doesn't have an unlimited legal right to interfere with everyone else's liberty.
    – Lag
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:50
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    @user253751 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism Nov 22, 2023 at 21:23

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