Illegal Road Blockade – Civil Disobedience: Climate Activists Go All-Out – News


They should not get away with this action scot-free: Twelve climate activists paralyzed traffic at the Bern-Wankdorf motorway exit on Tuesday morning. “Six people glued themselves to the road, among other things,” says Magdalena Rast, media spokeswoman for the Bern cantonal police.


A climate activist from the “Renovate Switzerland” movement is sitting on April 19, 2022 in the middle of the Bern-Wankdorf motorway exit.

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Traffic stood still for half an hour. Responsible for this: Renovate Switzerland. The Bern cantonal police took those involved to the station. Rast says: “Anyone who actively participated in the campaign must expect a display.”

What is behind Renovate Switzerland

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According to its own statements, Renovate Switzerland is a “civil resistance campaign” with the aim of promoting a national program for building renovation. Specifically, the climate activists are calling for more subsidies for energy-efficient building renovations. From 2023, these should amount to CHF 1 billion per year – five times more than today. In addition, 50,000 additional workers are to be trained for the construction industry by 2025.

According to the website, Renovate Switzerland is the Swiss offshoot of a movement that already exists in other countries, for example under the name “Dernière Rénovation” in France or “Declare Emergency” in the USA.

The blockades are quite dangerous – and not only for the demonstrators, said Rast. The backwater could lead to rear-end collisions, and rescue vehicles could not get through.

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The motorway blockade in Bern-Wankdorf is the third within a short time: Already last week activists from Renovate Switzerland Motorway exits blocked in Geneva and Lausanne.

Police officers lead a climate activist away in Lausanne.


On April 11, 2022, Renovate Switzerland blocked a motorway exit in Lausanne.

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The action is reminiscent of a sit-in in Zurich in 2020: around 250 demonstrators from the environmental group Extinction Rebellion blocked the Quaibrücke for three hours. The Zurich District Court then sentenced a law student to a conditional fine of 15 daily rates of CHF 20 each for coercion. The verdict is not yet legally binding. And in 2019, climate activists from Extinction Rebellion blocked an important thoroughfare in Lausanne. There, too, those involved received conditional fines in February, and the activists have announced an appeal.

A conditional prison sentence, this could threaten the activists in the case of the blocked motorway exit. This is the opinion of Hans Giger, professor emeritus and expert in road traffic law. He says: “This is not a trifle, but a criminally relevant coercion.” And the possible penalty for doing so ranges from a fine to three years in prison. Given the scale of climate change, such acts of civil disobedience could increase, Giger said. “And here you have to be careful that you push the bolt in time.”

Road blockade is not the same as road blockade

So far, the judiciary has often left it at a fine or a conditional fine in the case of illegal road blockades. But Giger says: “In my opinion, what is at stake is so serious that stricter penalties would be appropriate.” In the event of a sit-in in the city center, such as that in 2020 on the Quaibrücke in Zurich, there are still alternatives for road users. On a freeway, on the other hand, all traffic comes to a standstill. Even an emergency doctor who urgently needs to operate cannot get through. “That’s a big difference.”

For the legal assessment, the action is central – in the current case, the blockade of the motorway exit. “But the effect that occurs is very important for the sentence. If there are deaths, the damage is enormous and the act must automatically be judged more severely.” Without consequential damage, the court is often a little milder.

In civil proceedings, claims for damages would be possible

The retired law professor believes that climate activists generally underestimate the consequences of their actions. Not only in terms of the criminal dimension. “Any injured party could file a claim for damages in a civil process.” Nevertheless, Giger believes that those involved would probably not be branded by any criminal record entries in their professional life. “Especially when you’re young, you’ll overlook such things.”

Previous forms of action have had their day

Why do people keep resorting to such illegal means, putting themselves in direct danger, accepting financial consequences and, with an entry in the criminal record, also career-damaging consequences? Historian and sociologist Milo Probst conducts research at the University of Basel on criticism of environmental destruction and the social issues associated with it. He says there are several catalysts for the actions described: On the one hand, the extent of the climate problem, on the other hand, the inaction of the decision-makers in governments and corporations. “In addition, the activists have realized that previous forms of action have not been fruitful and have not led to any concrete changes.”

Activists disrupt public order with the aim of sparking debate.

Mass demonstrations, for example, would quickly become routine and would lose their symbolism as a result. This makes people resort to civil disobedience as a form of action. Say: “You commit a non-violent breach of the rule and disturb public order with the aim of drawing attention to a problem and triggering a debate.”

The achievements of civil disobedience

Historically, according to Probst, such acts of civil disobedience have been able to bring about change. The women’s rights movement is an example of this. “The blockade of banks has also triggered a public discussion about the responsibility of the Swiss financial center in the climate issue.”

The climate movement should focus more on addressing large and powerful actors.

The doctoral student, who is himself active in the climate movement, does not want to comment on the usefulness of sit-ins on the freeway during commuter times. He thinks it makes sense to be disruptive. But: “The climate movement should focus more on addressing large and powerful actors and fewer people who have very little influence on major political decisions in everyday life.”

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