Challenging Poland’s human rights trajectory

Growing international concern for the human rights situation in Poland has been expressed at a variety of international fora. Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) and its partners continue to document some of Poland’s key issues and are working to ensure that the underlying problems are correctly recognised and challenged at each opportunity.

Malgorzata Szuleka, from Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR), breaks these problems down into categories: “Right now, Poland faces two different sets of problems regarding human rights protection.”

“The first one is related to problems in very specific areas which Poland has been grappling with over the last couple of years. These problems, for example, include access to justice and guaranteeing a fair trial, better protection from discrimination, protecting freedom of speech and better guarantees for migrants and refugees’ rights.”

“The second set of problems is more systemic and concerns the on-going constitutional crisis, which poses a significant threat to the system of checks-and-balances.”

Both sets of problems have often been discussed at a range of international human rights bodies over the last 18 months.  

Last week, Poland had its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The review of Poland’s human rights by the international community was the culmination of a series of reviews at the Council of Europe and the United Nations, tracking Poland’s progress on its human rights obligations and commitments.

Florian Irminger, HRHF’s Head of Advocacy, commented that Poland’s UPR was timely: “If you look back, you can see that Poland’s human rights situation has been challenged in a variety of bodies, which we have briefed with the Helsinki Foundation, from the Venice Commission to the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Commission. Poland’s UPR is something of a climax of a cycle of reviews that have been very critical of changes happening in the country.”

“We see the UPR as another important moment for the international community to be drawing a line in the sand on several issues with Poland – from shrinking civil society space, and reduced protection afforded to human rights defenders, to issues around the rule of law, media freedom and judicial independence,” he continued.

During Poland’s review, it received 185 recommendations in total. Countries including Australia and Iceland expressed their concerns that Poland was going backwards on previous commitments.

At least ten countries called on Poland to reverse reforms that have damaged the independence and effectiveness of its Constitutional Tribunal, including Chile which stated that Poland should “respect the integrity and independence of the Constitutional Court.” Many also urged Poland to implement the recommendations of both the European Commission and Venice Commission, and called for protection of the media, the human rights ombudsman and non-governmental organisations.

Austria and Finland expressed their concern at the deteriorating situation for NGOs and called on Poland to give NGOs the freedom and protection they need to do their jobs. This included the government’s obligation to investigate promptly physical attacks and threats against activists and organisations.

“When Poland first had its human rights record reviewed under the UPR in 2008, it received 29 recommendations from just a small handful of countries. The concerns raised at this UPR, and the volume of them, reflect the serious constitutional and policy changes we have seen in Poland in recent years,” Florian Irminger said.

“What is interesting now is that where EU governments have previously been reluctant to speak openly about the deteriorating situation in Poland, many have used this session of the UPR to now voice their concerns.”

Małgorzata Szuleka concurred: “The UPR’s session on Poland was the first time when the countries of the European Union have openly addressed the constitutional crisis in Poland.” Speaking shortly after Poland’s UPR she asserted, “the biggest question now is whether these voices will be echoed at the European Union level.”

Poland’s human rights and rule of law situation was on the agenda of the European Union General Affairs Council (GAC) meeting yesterday, just a week after the UPR.

“This is the first time an EU Member State has been through a process like this. EU countries are ordinarily very reluctant to officially point a finger at fellow Member States, even more so in a procedural sense,” said Florian Irminger. 

During the press conference immediately following the GAC meeting, European Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans, said that there was broad agreement and “common interest” across EU governments in maintaining the importance and integrity of the rule of law across all countries. Despite making no mention of any specifics regarding potential deadlines or repercussions for Poland, he hinted that the European Commission had a “toolbox available to it.” He did not specifically refer to the procedure laid down in Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) that could lead to the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the Council. He concluded by saying that he hoped to see “a reaction by the Polish government after today’s events” and that “collective responsibility” was increasingly being shared by all Member States.

“This is really a defining moment for Poland,” concluded Florian Irminger, “and it is now not only civil society who are saying so, but also Poland’s key partners. Poland has a choice to make. We sincerely hope that it pays attention to the international warning signs being given, and moves back to a path of honouring and protecting its human rights commitments in the interests of all citizens of Poland.”

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In view of the UPR, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights submitted an NGO report to the United Nations. As such reports have to be submitted 6 months ahead of the session, it then circulated an update to its original report, thanks to outreach to Embassies of key European States in Warsaw. 

Ahead of the session, Polish human rights defenders and the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of Poland participated in UPR-Info’s pre-session, allowing them to brief diplomats in Geneva. In conjunction with the pre-session, HRHF organised an advocacy round in Geneva meeting key non-European States, such as Chile or XYZ, to encourage States outside of Europe to pay attention to the situation in Poland.

The Polish government is now expected to provide answers by June 2017 to the recommendations made during the UPR session on 9 May. The Human Rights Council will then assess the answers of the Polish government during its June 2017 session. At that occasion, NGOs can take the floor, too, and then launch the process to favour the implementation of the recommendations.


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