Warming to civil disobedience after Copenhagen’s failure

by Guest Blogger

January 12, 2010

Jasper Teulings, general counsel at Greenpeace International, writes about the release of our "Red Carpet Four." He says the restriction of peaceful protest against a problem as pressing as climate change is a serious threat to democracy. An edited version of this article was also published in the UK’s Guardian Weekly.

Greenpeace candle light vigil in Denmark

Whether the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Summit has dealt a mortal blow to the process of international climate negotiations in their current form is an important question currently under debate. A broader issue that is receiving attention in a handful of European countries is the future of civil disobedience, especially in the fight for climate justice.

On December 17, three Greenpeace activists made a special appearance at a banquet hosted by the Queen of Denmark for Heads of State attending the UN climate summit in Copenhagen. Juan, dressed in a tuxedo, and Nora, decked out in an H&M red floor-length gown, were waved through the high security cordon in their three-car convoy. They were ushered up the red carpet and, arriving inside, unfurled two banners reading "Politicians Talk, Leaders Act". They were arrested, along with two other activists, Christian and Joris. On January 6 – after substantial international public and diplomatic pressure – the "Red Carpet Four" were finally released.

The theoretical roots of civil disobedience are usually traced to Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience". Thoreau believed that the individual, who grants the state its power in the first place, must follow the dictates of his conscience in opposing unjust laws. (His ideas on civil disobedience reflected time he spent imprisoned for his refusal to pay a poll tax that supported the Mexican-American War and slavery.) Today civil disobedience is generally defined as a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.

What the Red Carpet Four did was classic civil disobedience.

Before her arrest, Nora told an interviewer that she was aware of the possible consequences of what she intended to do: "It’s a personal risk of spending a couple of days in prison…. You have to compare it to people who are affected by climate change and if we can do just a little to support them in this way then I am happy to do it."

Nora assumed, as did we all, that in Denmark the law would play by the law. She would be arrested, charged, released until trial and then, if convicted, perhaps sentenced to a fine or some time in jail.

Nora, charged but not convicted, was held for twenty days in a prison cell. For most of this time she was permitted to receive no letters, books or family visits. From arrest through Christmas and New Year she was not allowed to meet with her husband and two young children.

Over the nearly four decades of Greenpeace’s history, the organisation has abided by its core values of bearing witness and peaceful protest. The protest for which the Four were arrested was a piece of political theatre in line with this tradition. It relied entirely on simple, readily available materials and included several elements of farce. For instance, Greenpeace logos in the windscreens of cars rented by the activists were in one case wedged in place by a pair of socks. One of the car number plates included "007" – a reference to James Bond. Blue flashing lights were bought for a few dollars off the internet.

After the arrest, Greenpeace guaranteed that, if the activists were released, they would voluntarily return to Copenhagen to stand trial. To further facilitate the police investigation, Greenpeace immediately offered its full co-operation to Danish police and provided them with comprehensive details of the activity. A request from Greenpeace asking the Danish police to specify what additional information they required in order to complete their investigation was met with two weeks of silence. While the police claimed their detention was necessary for the investigation, it turns out that the Four were only questioned briefly on their first day in custody and for 15 minutes shortly before their release.

History shows that civil disobedience has been an effective method of instigating social change and ameliorating unjust laws. While it involves breaking the law, it also makes laws and has been at the heart of many of the great social advances in modern historical times; from the Boston Tea Party, anti-slavery and civil rights, to womens’ right to vote.

Examples set by Gandhi, King and Mandela represent the kind of disobedience aiming to guarantee legal protection for the basic rights of individuals. Contemporary civil disobedience as seen in the fight against climate change focuses not solely on individuals’ basic rights, but also on broader issues of justice.

In the case of the Red Carpet Four, civil disobedience was clearly used as a mechanism for repairing a democratic deficit. Civil society had been shut out from the climate negotiations and it was clear that on the evening before the final day of the conference a credible deal was nowhere in sight. Via a harmless peaceful protest, the Four aimed to impress on world leaders the urgency felt by citizens to act against global warming. While the Red Carpet Four were willing to accept legitimate legal ramifications, they were subjected to an unwarranted and unjustified detention.

In the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore: "If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience…" NASA’s Chief Scientist Dr. James Hansen and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer have made similar calls for civil disobedience to save the climate in recent years.

British human rights lawyer Richard Harvey has questioned whether this detention is in line with European and international norms stating that, "The Danish authorities must regard legitimate protest as an essential element of democratic discourse and freedom of expression. Such prolonged pre-trial detention appears to be a flagrant violation of key articles of international human rights agreements requiring those awaiting trial to be released when they guarantee to appear in court and for them to be entitled to trial within a reasonable time."

Let me give you two recent examples of how civil disobedience ideally works. The first is from late 2008.

Six Greenpeace activists, known as "The Kingsnorth Six", were accused of causing £30,000 of criminal damage to the Kingsnorth power station in the UK. They scaled a smoke stack and painted "Bin it Gordon" on the side. They were arrested and then released pending trial. In a victory for climate justice, their defence of "lawful excuse" – taking direct action to protect the climate from the burning of coal – was accepted by the jury.

The second example is a court verdict from 4 January 2010. Last July, 11 Greenpeace protesters unfurled an enormous banner on Mount Rushmore national monument, in South Dakota. Positioned just next to the head of President Lincoln was the face of President Obama and a slogan that read, “America Honors Leaders, Not Politicians: Stop Global Warming.” The goal was to challenge the President to take a strong stance on climate change in the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate summit.

The court in South Dakota allowed the activists to return home pending trial. All duly returned for their day in court, including an activist resident in the Netherlands. In sentencing the activists on 4 January, the judge in South Dakota noted the care they had exercised with regard to the monument, their motivations and the tradition of peaceful protest in the United States. The sentences involved fines of $460 each. One activist spent two days in jail, the others received 50-100 hours of community service.

Restriction of peaceful protest against a problem as pressing as climate change is a serious threat to democracy. Given the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit to come up with the fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty necessary to avert climate change it will take the will of the world to make politicians act.

Civil disobedience is one of the few tools that remain for civil society to participate in the conversation. It is an ultimate act of citizenship. In the words of historian Howard Zinn: “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”

It is in the interest of all of us to make sure that prolonged preventive and pre-trial detentions are not used to stifle freedom of expression and that they remain the exception.

-Jasper Teulings
General Counsel and advocaat
Greenpeace International

A Greenpeace volunteer holding a candle in front of the Royal Danish Embassy at a candlelight vigil. With the peaceful protest Greenpeace appeals to the Danish authorities to release the Red Carpet Four.
© Greenpeace / Nicolas Fojtu

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