New research finds the UK breached human rights at anti-fracking protests

The state violated human rights in the way it responded to UK anti-fracking protests, new research concludes.

A paper by a group of academics, due to be published next month, found that people who took part in the protests were unlawfully arrested and prevented from taking part in peaceful demonstrations or expressing their opposition to fracking. Their rights to a fair trial and respect for a private life were also threatened.

The authors, from the Extreme Energy Initiative*, argued: “The police response to anti-fracking protests, seemingly prompted by the need to protect governmental policy, has violated the right to freedom of peaceful assembly itself, in addition to threatening and violating other rights”.

They also argued that the process and infrastructure of fracking has the capacity to threaten rights to water, air, land and health.

They called for independent comprehensive research into the impacts of unconventional oil and gas on human rights. They said this would be “a vital tool for communities in the defence of their rights” when facing these developments.

Freedom of peaceful assembly

Some of the paper’s key conclusions drew on the results of questionnaire and interview research with people who took part in protests at Balcombe in West Sussex in 2013 and at Barton Moss in Salford in 2013-4 (see bottom of post for details).

The research found the:

overwhelming majority of both survey and interview respondents believed their right to freedom of peaceful assembly was prevented from being realised by the actions of police officers.

A right to peaceful assembly is recognised in Article 11 of the UK Human Rights Act, as well as by the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The paper said participants in the research referred to the use of violence by the police to prevent them from protesting peacefully. Comments by participants included that they were “kicked and pushed and punched”, “pushed and shoved in the back”, “pushed off the road by the police” and “shoved in the back repeatedly.” They also complained they were removed from the protest site and unlawfully arrested to stop them from demonstrating.

The paper said local authorities also tried to control and dismantle protests. West Sussex County Council, for example, obtained a possession order for land where Balcombe protesters had camped. In the new area provided for protest camping was not allowed. Salford City Council, the report said, met regularly with Greater Manchester Police and the site operator, IGas, sharing information and intelligence.

Freedom of expression

The paper put forward evidence that Greater Manchester Police violated the right to freedom of expression at the Barton Moss protest.

Article 10 of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights recognise the “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”. They do, however, allow for restrictions in the interests of national security and to prevent disorder or crime.

The researchers found that Greater Manchester Police requested anti-fracking banners be removed from a private property.

“For the request by GMP not to have violated the residents’ right to freedom of expression, the presence of the banners must be considered a threat to national security or public order, or their removal must be considered necessary to prevent a crime. These three scenarios appear to be legally unfounded, unless the anti-fracking movement itself is considered a threat to national security”, the paper argued.

“The banners may have encouraged activity at the Barton Moss protest camp, but that would only prompt legal justification for their removal if said activity was considered to be a threat to public order, or to constitute a crime. As the majority of protest activity fell within the remit of the right to peaceful assembly, such claims would appear to be legally unfounded.”

Liberty and security of person

The paper suggested there was evidence that police carried out unlawful arrests and breached the right to liberty and security of the person, recognised in Article 5 of the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights.

It said interviewees talked about the use of arrest quotas. One recalled: “There were five arrests every day” and that “Officers were heard to say ‘We need one more arrest’”. There were complaints about arbitrary or random arrests. Some interviewees felt arrests had no legal basis and were used to undermine morale and dissuade people from protesting. Some people said they had not been told why they had been arrested until they were in a police van. The paper said: “Such arrests, made without legal basis, would be in direct contravention of the right to liberty and security of person”.

The paper said that Greater Manchester Police had charged people with obstructing the highway on Barton Moss Lane until February 2014, even though in November 2013 a solicitor had explained in court that it was a private road with footpath access.

“Such testimony suggests that the GMP’s actions were designed to disrupt the anti-fracking protester’s right to freedom of peacefully assembly, apparently through unlawful activity”.

Fair trial

The paper also accused Greater Manchester Police and the Crown Prosecution Service of “knowingly prompting legal proceedings in which many protesters would be unable to meet the financial costs of a court case”.

Article 6 of the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights require that people who cannot afford to be legally represented in court should be “given it free when the interests of justice so require”.

One interview respondent described how people could not claim legal aid for an offence of obstructing the public highway. Some law firms worked pro bono and many people were able to get free legal representation. But without this, the paper argued, the interests of justice would have been “seriously compromised”.

Respect for a private and family life

There was evidence of police surveillance of email accounts, telephones and social media, the paper added. Interviewees said they suspected police were providing drilling companies with information gathered about protesters. One said: “We knew that they were monitoring our Facebook pages, our emails and our phones”.

For this to be lawful under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, surveillance would have to be in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, or for the prevention of disorder or crime.

The paper said neither Greater Manchester not Sussex Police could legally claim that the anti-fracking protests threatened national security or public safety or increased the possibility of disorder or crime because most fell within the right to peaceful assembly.

“On the surface it may seem that the extraction of shale gas is considered necessary for the economic well-being of the UK and hence in the national interest and is simply being prioritised over individuals’ fundamental civil and political rights”, the paper said.

But it raised doubts that this was true, given recent evidence of what it described as the “precarious nature of US fracking boom”.

Publication details
Extreme Energy, ‘Fracking’ and Human Rights: a New Field for Human Rights Impact Assessments? will be published in the March 2015 issue of The International Journal of Human Rights. The authors are Damien Short, Jessica Elliot, Kadin Norder, Edward Lloyd-Davies and Joanna Morley. Link to article

*The Extreme Energy Initiative describes itself as an academic forum concentrating on the effects of unconventional fossil fuel extraction on society and the environment

Survey details
The survey, available on and offline, was organised by Jessica Elliot. A total of 168 people responded. Of those 98 had personal experience of direct action against fracking in the UK. Of the 98, 79 had interacted or witnessed interactions with the police at protests. 56 people mentioned excessive use of force by police, 64 mentioned unnecessary use of force and 61 mentioned unnecessary arrests. 140 participants (88% of the total) believed their right to protest against fracking was being violated in the UK. 130 (82% of the total) believed their right to freedom of expression was being violated.

Reports into Sussex and Greater Manchester Police operations
A report into the Sussex Police operation at Balcombe, released under a Freedom of Information request, recommended the force continue to take legal advice on the policing response and how best to manage tensions between the right to protest and the business requirements of companies. The redacted section of the report stated that intelligence-gathering included “ECHR compliant covert means”. A report into the Greater Manchester Police operation of the anti-fracking protest cleared police officers of brutality but said the force needed to improve how it planned for future demonstrations. It did not refer to human rights violations.

3 replies »

  1. Dear Ruth Hayhurst This paper seems huge to me – have you any idea who is picking up on it yet, and how it might be used? Many thanks for your posts, and your work, Linda Hurrell Frack Free York.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Hi Linda Thanks for your comment. I agree with you about the paper. There’s lots in it about potential and actual human rights violations. As far as I know, no one else has reported on this. However, I saw the paper pre-publication and it may get more interest when the journal comes out.

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