Climate activism versus farmers’ protest: are the police and judicial authorities applying double standards?

Climate activism versus farmers’ protest: are the police and judicial authorities applying double standards?

Tomato soup on paintings, disrupting a classical concert, and protesting at Schiphol’s private jet park. After a summer full of farmers’ protests, now climate activists are making themselves heard. It seems the two groups are handled differently. Are the police and judicial authorities applying double standards? Univers found out and spoke with lecturer in criminal law Tom Faber and with Wim Dubbink, professor of business ethics, at the Philosophy Department.

Police arrest climate activists at Schiphol Airport. Image: Remko de Waal / ANP

The suspects who smeared the Girl with the Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in The Hague had to answer to the super-accelerated proceedings two weeks ago. In super-accelerated proceedings, a suspect is in court within three to six days. This is part of the police and judiciary’s immediate action policy. In this, criminal cases are handled as quickly as possible. The prosecution demanded four months in prison against the climate activists. The judge largely followed the prosecution’s reasoning and sentenced the defendants to two months in prison, one of which was unconditional. A hefty demand and sentence, aimed at preventing copycat behavior by other climate activists.

Are climate activists dealt with differently than the farmer-protestants, many people wonder. For how else can the former receive an unconditional prison sentence while the farmer-protestant—who drove into the provincial government building in Groningen—gets away with community service and a suspended prison sentence? And why do policemen drag peaceful activists off their bikes, but do they not intervene at highway blockades?

Surprise at super-accelerated proceedings

Criminal lawyer Christian Flokstra explains in the podcast Pro Forma (in Dutch) (Napleiten) that he finds the judge’s ruling “astonishing”: “The climate activists committed a criminal offense (vandalism: the damage to the frame is 2,000 euros, ed.), and for this, they should be prosecuted. But both the prosecution’s penalty demand and the judge’s ruling are disproportionate. They want to send a signal to the outside world to prevent copycat behavior, but a hefty suspended sentence does that as well.”

Flokstra explained that normally—according to prosecutorial guidelines and court orientation point—there are no prison sentences for this type of offense. He finds it “extra dubious” that the case was heard by only one judge (single-judge), instead of at least three judges (multiple-judge), as is usual in serious or complex cases. He also does not understand why the activists must serve their sentences immediately. In fact, it no longer makes sense for the activists to appeal: they will have already served their sentence.

Comparing climate action and farmer protests

Still, you cannot legally argue that there are double standards, says Flokstra: “From the (legal) principle of equality, you cannot compare farmers and climate activists: you have to have really equal cases to be able to say anything about that. In fact, farmers’ protest actions and climate actions are too different from each other.”

Tom Faber lecturer in criminal law at Tilburg University, also explains that this is a difficult comparison: “The question of whether the judge—compared to the farmer protests—punishes climate activists more severely is difficult to answer without research into prosecution and punishment in those cases.” A criminal judge weighs various factors in sentencing, including the severity of the offense, but also aspects related to the defendant as a person, such as previous convictions and likelihood of recidivism: “Because of these various factors, it is not quite that easy to say that a judge punishes more severely for a certain type of offense. Moreover, so far, it concerns a very small number of cases whose verdicts —as far as I have been able to see—have not (yet) been published.”

‘Farmers’ protest actions and climate actions are too different from each other’

So what about police actions? There, the difference seems clear. Protesting farmers are barely tackled, climate activists as quickly and harshly as possible. Faber: “Why the police act in a certain way also depends on many factors. Whether a particular group can count on more sympathy in that regard remains speculation.”

Criminal lawyer Flokstra does think it makes sense that many people make the comparison: “The sense of legal equality gnaws when police and the judicial authorities respond differently to civil disobedience or forms of activism. After all, the actions of climate activists did not endanger lives. Farmers’ actions did: they blocked highways, set fire to hay bales, and threatened politicians and journalists. Partly because of the verdict of the police court in the Girl with a Pearl Earring case, this is emotionally skewed.”

No trust

Wim Dubbink, professor of business ethics in the Philosophy Department, sees a decline in trust in the independent functioning of the Dutch police and judicial authorities:

“The activist farmers screamed hell and damnation last summer because the system (the approach to the nitrogen crisis, ed.) does not work in their favor. To make their point and prove they are right, they used crude means: tractors took over cities, farmers blocked roads for days, and politicians, journalists, and other people were systematically threatened by them. I find the police’s handling of the farmers’ protests very disappointing.”

“In my view, the Dutch police was always a well-functioning institution. But by not really intervening in the farmers’ protests this summer, in my opinion, trust in its independent functioning is ebbing away.”

‘I find the police’s handling of farmers’ protests very disappointing’

Dubbink also compares the farmers’ protests to the actions of climate activists: “The fact that the police fanatically suppress non-violent actions by climate activists calls into question the functioning of the rule of law. Especially when you compare this to the farmers’ protests. A police chief admitted in the newspaper that many officers sympathize with farmers. These officers find it difficult to act against farmers because they agree with their motives.”

“In this context, I have increasing difficulty taking the Dutch police and other institutions seriously and following their choices. Not the law or legal frameworks determine whether and how police and justice intervene, but sympathy for activists—and how easily they can arrest them—prevails.”

Still, he wants to emphasize that he believes it is important to take the police and other institutions that are part of our rule of law seriously because he believes democracy is the best of all forms of government. “To respect democracy and its institutions is my civic duty. But the difference in which left-wing climate activists and right-wing farm protestors are treated is just too great. That’s worrisome.”

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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