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Anne Power surrounded by police at an anti-fracking protest at Barton Moss, December 2013. Photo: Steven Speed /
Anne Power surrounded by police at an anti-fracking protest at Barton Moss, December 2013. Photo: Steven Speed /
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Fracking is driving UK civil and political rights violations

Jess Elliot & Damien Short

30th October 2014

Extreme energy in the UK is arousing extreme reactions, write Jess Elliot & Damien Short. On the one side stand citizens committed to preserving the quality of the local and global environment. And against them, a government determined to let fracking rip, and police forces prepared to ignore legal norms to suppress the growing popular resistance.

The civil and political implications of fracking development in the UK will only intensify as anti-fracking protests proliferate alongside exploratory activity.

The UK is faced with extreme energy development that will utilise all three 'fracking' technologies: Shale Gas/Oil, Coal Bed Methane (CBM) and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG).

Currently exploration licences cover a relatively small area of land, but roughly a third of the British Isles is being offered to fracking companies as part of the 14th onshore licensing round.

A new report released today by the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation highlights a number of potential human rights impacts for UK citizens should fracking development proceed beyond the exploratory stage.

The human rights implications of extractive activity are being increasingly discussed on the international stage, as concerned citizens demand global leaders take action to modify the excesses of human consumption and consumerism.

The report's concluding section alludes to issues beyond its scope which we elaborate on here; specifically the violations of civil and political rights that both exploratory and production phases of fracking development will likely entail.

Interviews, online surveys and correspondence with local campaigners have returned a wealth of personal testimony that dispels any suggestion that fracking development's problems are limited to environmental and human health concerns.

The anti-fracking movement is the fastest growing social movement in the UK with currently over 180 local groups, up from around 30 in 2013. This inconvenient fact poses a problem for a government wanting to go 'all out for shale'. How has the state reacted so far?

Nationally coordinated suppression?

To date there have been over 400 arrests of peaceful protestors, and data from Balcombe and Barton Moss is suggestive of a nationally coordinated attempt to suppress opposition to shale gas extraction at the expense of domestically and internationally recognised rights.

This campaign has been interpreted by those within the anti-fracking movement as akin to the state response to the 1984-5 Miners' Strikes through the use of political policing and intimidation of protestors.

Civil and political rights have been primarily infringed by the response of Greater Manchester Police and Sussex Police to peaceful protest at exploratory drilling sites, exhibited most commonly through protestors attempting to delay the arrival of equipment by walking in front of delivery lorries.

The resultant interactions between police and protestors have prompted concerns over the prioritisation of fracking development's alleged 'economic benefits' and provision of short-term 'energy security' over the rights of individuals and local communities.

The analysis of interview data indicates that through these actions the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, liberty and security of person, a fair trial, and respect for a private and family life, have been threatened or violated through the use of unnecessary or excessive force, unlawful arrests, covert surveillance of protestors, and intimidation of members of the Anti-fracking movement.

Each of these rights is protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, European Convention on Human Rights, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the UK is legally bound to observe.

Police Violence and arrest quotas

Police interaction with anti-fracking protesters at both Balcombe and Barton Moss involved the use of violence, forcible removal of individuals from the protest site without arrest, and kettling.

Interview respondents described how 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". Police behavior was described as "brutal", "violent", "thuggish", "rough", and "very, very aggressive", resulting in interactions in which a bone got broken.

The use of physical violence was widely reported amongst interview and survey respondents, indicating unlawful police activity at both Balcombe and Barton Moss that directly impacted upon the ability of anti-fracking protestors to realise one of their fundamental civil and political rights.

This violence was accompanied by other forms of unlawful activity to inhibit anti-fracking protest activity at both sites.

References were made in several interviews to the concept of arrest quotas, whereby police would carry out specific numbers of arrests over consecutive days.

At Barton Moss, throughout the autumn and winter of 2013, one interview respondent recalled how "there were five arrests every day", and that "Officers were heard to say 'We need one more arrest'."

The same respondent believed that the use of arrest quotas was "almost certainly planned in advance", and designed as "a long term plan" which would ensure that "eventually everyone would be arrested".

More explicitly, the respondent explained how such patterns of arrests effectively worked, as "you're arrested, you get bailed, next time you get arrested in breach of bail. Over a period of time, such a cycle would decrease the effectiveness of the protest camp's actions and increase the likelihood of its disbandment."

Arrests were also described as "clearly random", "quite random", and "completely random", with one respondent expressing the most telling sentiment, that: "there was a risk that at any time you could be arrested". Such arrests were believed to be used as a way of "undermining people's morale".

Spurious arrests

In addition to arrest quotas and arbitrary arrests, allegations were made by an interview respondent of arrests being knowingly made on unlawful charges by Greater Manchester Police.

At Barton Moss, delivery lorries travelled down Barton Moss Lane to reach the IGas drilling site, a designated private road with footpath access for the public. The respondent described how police made arrests on Barton Moss Lane for "the crime of obstructing a public highway", an entirely unlawful charge given that the road is private and therefore does not constitute a public highway.

Significantly, the respondent described how, at a court hearing of individuals charged with the crime of obstruction of a public highway in November 2013, "a solicitor informed the court that Barton Moss Lane was a private road which has public footpath access", but Greater Manchester Police "continued to make arrests. under that crime until [...] February."

This meant that, as expressed by the respondent, "for nearly three months they continued to arrest for a crime that wasn't a crime".

Many arrests appear to have been made under what were somewhat spurious claims. For example, interview respondents detailed how at both Balcombe and Barton Moss, while escorting delivery lorries to the exploratory drilling sites, protestors were arrested for "obstructing a police officer" if they fell over.

These arrests were justified under the premise that "if you fall down in front of a police officer you are obstructing him from moving down the road". Such interactions between police and protestors prompted frustrations, but also fears.

Monitoring of Communications

Several interview respondents raised concerns of police surveillance of email accounts, telephones and social media.

Although, as one interview respondent indicated, such activities are "difficult to prove", other interview respondents were insistent in their belief of surveillance activity, stating that "We knew that they were monitoring our Facebook pages, our emails and our phones", and "I have no doubt that they were bugging certain people's phones" and "keeping a close eye on people's Facebook pages".

Concerns for some anti-fracking protestors over the security of information were such that one interview respondent described how, when important details about protest action required discussion, the individuals involved would "get together and speak about it rather than using [social] media."

Seemingly to confirm fears of surveillance, another respondent described how a list of press contacts on an email account were "scrambled", preventing messages from reaching the majority of the list's recipients.

The use of covert surveillance has prompted fears of how intelligence gathered by Greater Manchester Police and Sussex Police has been shared nationally, with explicit reference made by one interview respondent to the Domestic Extremist Unit.

Another correspondent reported having been visited at home by two members of the Counter Terrorism and Domestic Extremism Unit after filming at a potential drilling site. The visit, according to the two "officers", was made on the request of a local police force who in turn received their request from the firm's "security personnel".

It seems that behind such examples of close cooperation and coordination between 'fracking' firms, the state and police forces lies a specific intent to intimidate and deter individuals involved in protest or related activities.

Democratic freedoms eroded

The explicit violations of rights in the context of anti-fracking protests fit within a wider discussion of democracy, and concern the right to public participation, which is protected in matters of environmental impact by the Aarhus Convention.

The increasing opposition to fracking, evidenced in the growing plethora of local campaign groups across the UK, indicates governmental failure to adequately respond to local and national concerns over the human rights implications of fracking or provide sufficient opportunities for public participation in decision making.

Both interview and survey respondents have expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of governmental consideration of public concerns, stating variously that "The government are not listening to people", "the government refuses to engage and consult with the public", "The government is ignoring the will of the people", and "we have never been consulted".

These comments indicate a deeper concern with the denial of citizen participation in a democratic society, with survey respondents describing how "democracy appears to be disregarded completely", and that the process of introducing fracking in the UK "is eroding our democracy".

With specific respect to public opinion, one survey respondent described how, when the application for exploratory drilling was made by Cuadrilla in Balcombe, and the local council requested residents' opinions, "899 letters against it [...], 5 for and they still went for it".

This example demonstrates a particular disregard for the individuals living in proximity to exploratory sites, and indicates how individuals have become disillusioned with official avenues of complaint.

Fundamental rights are at risk

Not all anti-fracking activity in the UK has been 'lawful' as such, and has included the occupation of Cuadrilla's offices in Blackpool and the blockading of roads to exploratory drilling sites.

Although instances of direct action which technically violate domestic law are not protected by international human rights legislation, these events indicate the extent to which individuals are sufficiently disillusioned with governmental policy to consider and undertake 'illegal' action.

Acts of both civil disobedience and peaceful protest will occur with increasing frequency as local communities realise the extent of the extractive industry's impact.

This indicates the vital nature of further human rights based research into the planning, implementation and infrastructure of fracking development, and the need for genuinely independent human rights impact assessments for all communities before any extractive activity begins in the UK.

The civil and political implications of fracking development in the UK will only intensify as anti-fracking protests proliferate alongside exploratory activity.

The rights violations described above must therefore prompt both public awareness and governmental response to the reality that fracking development can no longer be considered in separation from the civil and political sphere, as personal testimony indicates the extent to which fundamental rights of UK citizens who oppose governmental policy are at risk.

As the report concludes, "for the UK Government to proceed with fracking without adequate assessment of the human rights position would amount to a serious failure of responsibility."



The report: A Human Rights Assessment of Hydraulic Fracturing and Other Unconventional Gas Development in the United Kingdom is launched today.

Also on The Ecologist:

Jess Elliot
is a Research Associate at the Human Rights Consortium, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Damien Short is a Reader in Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London and Director of the School's MA programme in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, Human Rights Consortium and Extreme Energy Initiative.

This article is an extended version of one originally published on The Conversation.

For further information on violations of civil and political rights in the context of anti-fracking protests in the UK, please look out for the forthcoming Short et al, 2014, International Journal of Human Rights, December 2014.

The Conversation


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