I’m typing these words from the Greenpeace office in Copenhagen, about a ten-minute walk from the Danish Parliament, where nearly 15 months ago, three Greenpeace activists were arrested for politely and peacefully calling on some 120 heads of state attending a royal banquet to take urgent climate action. It has taken until this week for the prosecutor to levy charges against eleven activists, plus Greenpeace Nordic as an organization, including trespass, falsification of documents, and impersonating a public official.
But there’s more: the eleven are also facing the obscure charge of having committed an offence against Denmark’s Queen. The dusting off of this little known and as far as we can tell never before used law has attracted a little derision and criticism in Danish media since it was announced last week. Justice Minister is required to personally approved its use, you’d have thought he had better things to do with his time.
It was the night of December 17th, 2009, and the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit was careering to an ignominious end. World leaders needed a reminder of why they were hobnobbing in Copenhagen, so Juan as 'Head of State of the Natural Kingdom' – so desperately in need of representation -- his 'wife' Nora, and an ‘escort’, Christian, adorned in the appropriate attire walked up the red carpet ushering the VIPs into the Parliament building. Once inside they gracefully unfurled banners that read “Politicians talk, leaders act”. Security pounced and it was over in a matter of minutes.
All three were arrested and held in a local jail for 20 days, over Christmas and New Year. Joris, who was outside the Parliament speaking to media during the protest, was arrested the following day and also spent his festive season incarcerated in the same jail.
So, what has all this to do with the Queen of Denmark? It was her dinner. She seems to have been somewhere in the massive building complex that houses the Parliament. The activists certainly didn’t see her. She was not the planned audience for their message, she was not attending the Climate Summit and she was not negotiating a deal that could make or break the climate.
Nora, one of the activists, following the announcement of the charges, said: “…the charges are completely disproportionate to our peaceful protest, which called on heads of state to take real climate action. The threat of these charges could deter others from taking part in peaceful protests, which are an integral part of any healthy democracy”.
Over 100 Greenpeace supporters held a candle-lit vigil outside the Vestre Fængsel prison where four Greenpeace activists were being held. They spent Christmas in jail.
All eyes on Copenhagen, well not quite, but it’s a busy week here in Copenhagen. Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International and some other Greenpeace folk are attending a workshop where 70 experts, including lawyers, police officers, human rights experts and activists from around the world are examining how the right to peaceful protest should, and can be respected within a democracy. A timely topic for a world in turmoil, a worthy debate in a country free to hold it – a fact that should not go unregistered by those in Denmark who seek to discourage peaceful protest with disproportionate legal sanctions.
Kumi believes that peaceful protest has been at the heart of advancing social justice, environmental justice, gender justice and equal rights in general. Denmark is widely seen as a model democracy said Kumi but if the Danish government “insists on seeking disproportionate punishment for peaceful activists, it is not only tarnishing its own reputation, but questioning the rights of ordinary people everywhere to stand up for their principles”.
A court date has yet to be announced for the “red carpet eleven”, and explicit penalties have yet to be requested by the prosecutor. 15 months since Nora, Jaun, Christian, Joris and the others politely and peacefully reminded the gathered heads of state that “politicians talk, leaders act’, we have heard a lot of talk about climate action but not seen much action to talk about.
We said at the time that the real criminals had fled the scene in their private presidential and prime ministerial jets. Well, as Kumi says: “The real crime is the continued failure of world leaders to take action to protect the climate”.
The Copenhagen Red Carpet story is not over yet – stay tuned.