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UN calls on WA parliament to block anti-protest laws -

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MARK COLVIN: The United Nations human rights office has warned that a West Australian Government bill will silence dissent and punish expression protected by international law.

The state's Upper House is debating legislation which would make it illegal for protesters to prevent a lawful activity.

It would also drastically increase the jail time for such offences.

The proposed laws particularly target environmentalists who lock themselves to trees or heavy machinery.

Three UN experts have warned that they would drastically increase police powers and have called for Parliament to block the bill.

Anthony Stewart reports.

ANTHONY STEWART: The United Nations human rights office is warning protests are at risk in Western Australia.

(Protesters chanting)

ANTHONY STEWART: Three UN Special Rapporteurs have today issued a statement calling on WA to abandon proposed anti-protest laws, which are currently being debated in the state's Upper House.

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEURS STATEMENT (voiceover): The proposed legislation will have the chilling effect of silencing dissenters and punishing expression protected by international human rights law. It disproportionately criminalises legitimate protest actions.

ANTHONY STEWART: The prevention of lawful activity bill will add an offence to the criminal code which makes it illegal for a person to physically prevent another person from carrying out a lawful activity.

The Government has stated its aim is to stop what it's labelled "radical protesters" who use devices such as thumb and arm locks to delay major projects.

Since the bill's introduction last year, it's been heavily criticised by church groups, the Farmers' Federation, Law Society and unions.

Meredith Hammat is the secretary of Unions WA.

MEREDITH HAMMAT: We are concerned it could be used in wide variety of different circumstances and really misused in effect. So, it creates a new offence which means, if you're preventing lawful activity, that would be a criminal offence.

And that's drafted in a way that's incredibly vague. It also makes it possible for people to be charged if they're in possession of a thing.

And again, it's in incredibly vague terms that could be applied in a variety of circumstances. The other thing that is concerning about this bill is that is reverses the onus of proof.

And so in circumstances people might be forced to prove that they were just simply going about their business and yet they've been caught up in these very wide-ranging, very poorly drafted laws.

ANTHONY STEWART: It's a view shared by the UN human rights office.

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEURS STATEMENT (voiceover): The bill discourages legitimate protest activity and instead, prioritises business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of individuals.

ANTHONY STEWART: The UN has also raised concern about the new criminal penalties the bill imposes.

They include a prison term of up to two years or a fine of $24,000.

Upper House Greens member Lynn MacLaren says the Government cannot ignore the UN.

LYNN MACLAREN: It's a very poorly drafted, stiff penalties and it involves removing the presumption of innocence. So it's amazing how a short four-clause bill has offended the UN and all of civil society in the way that is has, and that the Barnett Government continues to ignore our criticism.

ANTHONY STEWART: The WA Premier Colin Barnett rejects the criticism.

COLIN BARNETT: Anyone can have a view about that but this is Western Australia, it's Australia, this is a first-world nation with great freedoms, civil liberties and the like. This is not some despot country in Africa or wherever, and any suggestion that you know there is some sort of unreasonable crackdown on protesters is just false.

ANTHONY STEWART: He says the changes are about protecting people.

COLIN BARNETT: What we are proposing to do is to have 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, allow protests to take place but they need to peaceful and they do not need to be of a nature that endanger individuals. That is what we are about.

MARK COLVIN: The West Australian Premier Colin Barnett ending that report from Anthony Stewart.