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UN calls WA Legislative Council to dump Barnett's anti-protest laws

“The Bill would criminalise a wide range of legitimate conduct by creating criminal offences for the acts of physically preventing a lawful activity and possessing an object for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity.

Colin Barnett

Daniel Emerson and Gareth Parker West Australian 16 February 2016

The United Nations Office of the High Commission on Human Rights has made a rare foray into West Australian politics, calling on the Legislative Council to vote down the Barnett Government’s controversial anti-protest laws.

The laws would create criminal offences punishable by up to two years jail or a $24,000 fine for “physically preventing lawful activity” or possessing any “thing” police suspect was intended to be used for that offence.

They do not mention locking devices used by 'extreme protesters', which the Government says it targeted at, prompting opponents to claim peaceful sit-ins and marches could be included.

The laws, which were debated extensively in the Legislative Council last year and are due to resume today, have been opposed by the WA Law Society, Criminal Lawyers Association, Labor, Greens and WAFarmers, Baptist Care, Unions WA and the Conservation Council.

They have been joined by three UN special rapporteurs on freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and human rights defenders, who described the bill as “chilling”.

“If the Bill passes, it would go against Australia’s international obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of opinion and expression as well as peaceful assembly and association,” said special rapporteurs David Kaye, Maina Kiai and Michel Forst.

“The Bill would criminalise a wide range of legitimate conduct by creating criminal offences for the acts of physically preventing a lawful activity and possessing an object for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity.

“For example, peaceful civil disobedience and any non-violent direct action could be characterised as ‘physically preventing a lawful activity.’

“The proposed legislation will have the chilling effect of silencing dissenters and punishing expression protected by international human rights law. Instead of having a necessary legitimate aim, the Bill’s offence provisions disproportionately criminalise legitimate protest actions.”

Premier Colin Barnett has dismissed the criticism.

“Anyone can have a view,” he said.

“But this is Western Australia and Australia, a first world nation with great freedoms, civil liberties and the like.

“This is not some despot country in Africa or wherever.

“Any suggestion that there is some sort of unreasonable crackdown on protesters is just false.

“What we are proposing to do is put in some measures which will prevent people from putting themselves in danger or others in danger in terms of having to rescue them.

“I will always facilitate and allow protest to take place but they have to be peaceful and they do not need to endanger individuals, that’s what we’re about.”