Traditionally, when someone is accused and charged with committing a criminal offence, responses are black or white. The accused either protests their innocence and fights for justice — or they admit to the crime, plead guilty and face the consequences of the law.
In recent times, we have witnessed a new phenomenon emerging. People are admitting to having committed a criminal offence, but they are arguing that it was necessary for them to have committed it in the first place.
This is seen particularly amongst the new wave of “eco zealots”. Where is the logic, or indeed morality, behind this?
Thunberg was both admitting to and denying the offence
Take Greta Thunberg, one of the most infamous climate protesters of the modern era. She was arrested back in June after stopping traffic in a port terminal in Malmö, southern Sweden. What followed was an appearance for the 20-year-old before Malmö District Court, after her having been charged with a number of offences, including “refusing to obey police orders”. She was subsequently found guilty and issued with a fine. However, she avoided a prison sentence, even though it was within the Court’s power to impose one.
One could unpick whether this sentence was proportionate and whether the Court was overly lenient on Thunberg. I am more interested in Thunberg’s own reflections on what occurred.
In a confused and inherently contradictory statement, Thunberg told the Court: “It’s correct that I was at that place on that day, and it’s correct that I received an order that I didn’t listen to, but I want to deny the crime.” She was both admitting to and denying the offence.
She went on to say: “My actions are justifiable. I believe that we are in an emergency that threatens life, health and property.” In other words, “I committed a crime but I was justified in doing so”.
Let’s look at another example: Just Stop Oil. This organisation has received widespread criticism after engaging in a series of demonstrations, which include blocking roads (even preventing ambulances and police cars from getting through), vandalising works of art, and disrupting a variety of sporting and cultural events, ranging from the World Snooker Championships to Wimbledon to the Proms. In a particularly ironic example of “intersectionality”, Just Stop Oil disrupted London Pride.
Unsurprisingly, its protestors have found themselves being arrested for and charged with a variety of criminal offences, including public order offences and criminal damage.
Once again, we have witnessed a curious response. Indigo Rumbelow, a co-founder of Just Stop Oil, appeared on an episode of BBC’s Moral Maze in July of this year. The theme of the programme was the “Morality of Climate Activism”.
Rumbelow herself has been arrested on at least 15 occasions and recently received a 40-day suspended prison sentence, after breaching a Court injunction not to protest on the M25.
In response to hard-hitting questioning by Tim Stanley, Rumbelow like Thunberg appeared to acknowledge that she had committed criminal offences, whilst also attempting to justify or explain them away. She said: “The Court put a sentence on me in trying to take action to protect life. The legal system is failing us.”
When asked how far she and her comrades were willing to go to make their point, including whether they would be content to stop someone who had just suffered a stroke from reaching hospital, Rumbelow said: “It’s really not just about me but how far are we willing to go at this moment in time … it makes me feel incredibly sad but determined to continue in my actions.”
It becomes abundantly clear that these self-described “eco warriors” believe that they are morally (and possibly even legally) justified in committing the crimes that they do.
Is there any legal precedent for this?
Under Common Law, there is a defence of “duress of circumstances” or “necessity”. In simple terms, it relates to choosing the lesser of two evils. However, in the 1989 case of R v Conway, the Court of Appeal made it clear that such a defence is only available if, from an objective standpoint, a defendant could be said to have acted, reasonably and proportionately, in order to avoid a threat of death or serious injury (amounting to serious bodily harm). That particular case involved a defendant who drove recklessly, in order to escape from men who he thought were trying to injure his passenger.
No one could reasonably make the case that, objectively, climate activists are reasonably and proportionately glueing themselves to roads in order to avoid a threat of death or serious injury.
The House of Lords (the precursor to our Supreme Court) stated clearly in the case of R v Hasan that “duress” is an “excuse, not a justification”.
This behaviour is only good for alienating the public
Another leading case to use “necessity” as a defence, Re A (Children), was heard in 2001 before the Court of Appeal. It involved conjoined twins, in which the stronger twin was keeping the weaker one alive. Doctors determined that if they were not separated, the heart of the stronger twin would fail and both would die. However, if they were separated, the stronger one would live but the weaker one would die. The parents refused on the grounds of religion, and the hospital applied for a court order. The Court of Appeal determined that the proposed operation was an act of necessity, in order to avoid “inevitable and irreparable evil”.
Even someone with the greatest chutzpah could not possibly attempt to compare activists concerned about climate change, who throw cans of soup over works of art, with doctors forced to separate conjoined twins, in order to prevent both dying.
We live in times of heightened emotional intensity, in which everyone appears to have a pet campaign project or something they want to change in society. I, for example, have been a strong advocate regarding the impact that gender ideology is having on child safety and freedom of speech.
Nonetheless, most of us come at our campaigns from a principle of “do no harm”, no matter how serious the implications are. I will not damage property, block ambulances or bring society to a standstill, no matter how grave I believe puberty blockers are. That is not how to get things done in a democratic society. That behaviour is only good for alienating the very public you are meant to be winning over.
The likes of Thunberg and Rumbelow appear to view life through a lens of moral supremacy, bordering on narcissism, in which their cause is far more important than anyone else’s cause, or indeed anyone else’s life.
There is neither moral nor legal justification for their actions. The sooner that our police and courts clamp down on them, the better.
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