BRUSSELS, 7 March 2018 – The UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe on Wednesday expressed concern that the space for civil society as well as judicial independence appears to be shrinking in Poland, even as extremist rhetoric grows.
Following two visits to the country in December and February, the Office urges the Government to engage in a meaningful dialogue with organisations working on human rights and rule of law issues, and to restore the system of checks and balances necessary in a credible democracy.
Polish civil society has historically served as a source of inspiration for civil activism throughout Central and Eastern Europe – and beyond, said Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for the UN Human Rights Office for Europe. But our visit confirmed that the reforms implemented since 2015 have gradually eroded basic checks and balances in Poland and negatively affected the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression. This has considerably narrowed the space for constructive exchanges between the Government and civil society.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, through a series of new or amended laws and policies, the Office of the Prosecutor-General has been politicized, judiciary oversight of anti-terrorism activities restricted, and Executive control over the judiciary, the media and over funding for civil society tightened. Several independent institutions have either been dissolved, weakened, subjected to or threatened with funding cuts or smeared publicly by leading political figures and media outlets. The European Commission has warned that, seen as a whole, these developments present a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland.
Several human rights defenders highlighted the legal uncertainty they face since the Government's comprehensive legal reform agenda was launched. A common point of concern was the passage of the Act on the National Institute of Freedom – Centre for the Development of Civil Society, which several civil society representatives described as a main instrument to silence individuals or entities that do not agree with the Government. Poland's Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that certain civil society organizations that were not pro-Government would have trouble getting funding, and were already finding it increasingly difficult to express their opinions in public, as they are often unable to adequately access official media.
Civil society actors explained that they felt vulnerable, Van Hout said. A strong and vibrant civil society that engages in matters of public interest, speaks truth to power, no matter how inconvenient, and endeavors to uphold the rights of all people, particularly those most vulnerable, is a fundamental component of a healthy and stable democracy.
Representatives of NGOs working on freedom of expression underlined that recent legislative changes had led to the Government's growing interference in the content and nature of the public broadcasting service, dramatically reducing pluralistic, public-interest coverage, and increasing the risk of self-censorship.
Many in the country expressed alarm that reforms targeting the Constitutional Court and the judiciary paved the way for partisan interpretation of the Constitution and domestic laws, contributing to legal insecurity and severely weakening checks and balances. New reforms – aimed at the Supreme Court, the Prosecution Service and the National Council of the Judiciary – are set to enter into force on 3 April 2018.
If passed, these additional reforms would amount, in practical terms, to a serious further dissolution of the separation of powers in Poland, Van Hout said.
Leading members of the Jewish and Muslim communities voiced their concern over growing hate speech and discrimination in Polish society. Representatives of the Muslim community said the Government's often passive approach to the hate speech and hate crimes against them had created a sense amongst far-right elements that they could carry out such acts relatively unhindered. One individual said: When political leaders, and the media, refer to migrants and refugees as people who bring disease into Poland, and indirectly suggest that an Islamic invasion is forthcoming, how can it come as a surprise that xenophobia is increasing?
We were encouraged by the Government's intention to apply a zero tolerance policy regarding intolerance and hate speech, as well as their establishment of an inter-ministerial task-force that would engage with civil society to tackle hate speech and xenophobia, Van Hout said.
This would represent a welcome step in a context where far-right and nationalist fringe groups have been able to express themselves and showcase their xenophobic and supremacist messages with considerable freedom and with limited public condemnation or prosecution.
Van Hout also said she was troubled by the amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, which could lead to up to three years of imprisonment for those whorefer to World War 2 Nazi concentration camps as Polish death camps. She noted with concern that the Polish League Against Defamation had already initiated legal action under this law against a newspaper.
In addition, women's rights advocates described clear setbacks in the past few years, including: the termination or reduction of funding for groups promoting women's rights, and attempts to further curtail sexual and reproductive rights in a country which already has one of the strictest laws on abortion in Europe. They observed that while women's marches in November 2016 had obliged the Government to reconsider an even tougher version of the law, there had been no change of policy, but rather a change in strategy, with gradual, incremental restrictions to sexual and reproductive health and rights on the agenda.
During its visits to the country, the teams from the UN Human Rights Office met with Government officials, representatives of organizations working on human rights, including groups focusing on the rights of women, people with disabilities, LGBTI persons, religious minorities, as well as freedom of expression. The teams also met with Poland's Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe. The Office encourages the European Commission and European Union Member States to remain engaged on the human rights situation in Poland.
Van Hout expressed her appreciation to the Polish Government for its cooperation during the visits, and for its expressed willingness to engage more actively with the UN Human Rights Office. She stressed that the Office was ready to work with the Government and civil society to help address the human rights challenges in the country.
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This year, 2018, is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It remains relevant to everyone, every day. In honour of the 70thanniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, we are urging people everywhere to Stand Up for Human Rights: www.standup4humanrights.org.
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