UN rights experts urge Western Australia to abandon proposed anti-protest laws

Three UN human rights experts urged the Western Australian parliament not to adopt a proposed law that would criminalise peaceful protests and silence environmentalists and human rights defenders.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015 is due to be debated when the WA parliament resumes next week. The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of advocacy and research, Emily Howie, welcomed the statement from the UN rights experts. She said the Bill, if passed, would criminalise legitimate protest and give police excessively broad and unnecessary powers.

“The proposed laws are written in such vague and broad terms that it would turn innocent acts into matters worthy of arrest. If passed, the new law would criminalise peaceful assembly and civil disobedience, as well as the possession of everyday items, such as bike locks. It would give police virtual carte blanche to arrest people," said Ms Howie.

In a statement, the three UN experts said that if the Bill passes it would violate freedom of opinion and expression as well as peaceful assembly and association. 

One of the experts, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly, Maina Kiai, stressed that the passage of the Bill would grant police disproportionate and unnecessary powers to restrict lawful protests, primarily against environmental activists trying to raise awareness of key environmental issues. “It discourages legitimate protest activity and instead, prioritizes business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of individuals,” he noted.

“Our basic human rights and democratic freedoms can’t simply be cast aside when it inconveniences business interests. It’s in the public interest to have a strong and vibrant civil society that can defend our shared environmental resources and balance the strong influence of business,” said Ms Howie.

The WA Government first introduced the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill in 2015 and is due to be debated when parliament resumes this week. The Bill would create two new criminal offences (1) physically preventing a lawful activity and (2) preparation for physically preventing a lawful activity or trespass, including possessing a ‘thing’ for the purpose of preventing lawful activity.

Last week the Human Rights Law Centre and the International Service for Human Rights wrote to the UN human rights experts asking them to make a statement opposing the Bill.

A broad sector of civil society oppose the Bill, including church leaders, conservation groups, the legal profession, farmers, community advocates and unions.