“I won’t be nice and good” – interview with the new Polish Ombudsman

Polish Magazine “Polityka” published interview with Professor Irena Lipowicz, the new Ombudsman, about sexual minorities, partnerships, ethics lessons, the rights of the elderly, as well as whether she’ll be able to oppose the state and the Church.

Joanna Podgórska: – Your Swedish equivalent participated in the Warsaw EuroPride. Maybe you should also join?

Irena Lipowicz: – This was before his oath. I didn’t take on my post yet.

J.P: So maybe you’ll participate in next year’s Pride Parade?

I.L: That’s not what the Ombudsman’s work is about. I refer to the Ombudsman of one of the former eastern bloc countries with great respect, as he participated in a legal demonstration, which was attacked with batons by the police forces, who broke people’s arms and legs. On the other hand, the Warsaw parades are legal demonstrations, protected by the police forces.

J.P: The demonstration was by a minority, who feel discriminated and are waiting for the Ombudsman to support them. That would be a gesture.

I.L: I have various instruments, I don’t personally have to participate in parades. It’s important to remember the rule about equal distance in controversial situations.

J.P: Will you support the project of the act about partnerships? Slowly we’re starting to become a white stain on the map of Europe.

I.L: During public hearings I met with representatives of the LGBT organisations (lesbians, gays, bisexual people and trans genders). We agreed to arrange further discussions. According to their reports there are situations, where beaten up homosexuals are scared to go with a complaint to the police because – as they claim – they are treated in a humiliating way. That’s why they don’t report that a crime has been committed. I believe that this will be one of the first cases in this area. Regarding the regulation about partnerships, it’s one of the hottest political issues, just like in vitro. I don’t want to enter arguments between political parties. At the moment I’m learning how apolitical the Ombudsman should be.

J.P: But it’s an issue directly connected to human rights.

I.L: Almost everything is connected to human rights. However, participating in the works about the regulation can exclude the right for its judgment later on.

J.P: Everything can also be seen as political.

I.L: As I already highlighted, the regulation orders me to obey a higher standard of being apolitical and keeping an equal distance.

J.P: Does this mean that you will avoid the issue of partnerships?

I.L: I am meant to stand on guard of the law. This law is now being created. As the Ombudsman I do not have the legislative initiative. However, I do have the right for inspiration and insisting. When it turns out that there’s a social problem eg. that LGBT people are not scared of being beaten up by the police, but of public humiliation, then it turns out that in the light of the applicable law their fears are justified, then I can meet with all the parliamentary clubs and alarm them that public damage is happening, and it has to be fixed.

J.P:And what about situations, where one of the partners is in hospital, unconscious, and the other can’t obtain any information, because in the light of law is a stranger? The regulation about partnerships would solve this problem.

I.L: I was always taught as a lawyer, that you shouldn’t conduct a parade from a distance. I believe that this is more of a general problem of giving information in hospitals, which also applies to heterosexuals. Even if there was a regulation about partnerships, the hospital could then refer to the regulation about protection of personal data and refuse to grant such information. I can repeat what I said during the public hearings: I was a member of the constitutional committee, where over many long weeks we discussed the provision, that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. As co-submitter of this provision I remember the intentions of the committee. Currently as the Ombudsman my job involves protecting the applicable law.

J.P: But no one is talking about marriage here, but something similar to the French civil pact.

I.L: Honestly speaking, I’m not exactly familiar with the project prepared by the homosexual communities. It’s important to think about, if it’s not such a part of rights and duties, which not naming itself a marriage, actually is one.

J.P: Poland has a problem with the European Union anti discrimination directives. We can face serious financial sanctions, and works over the regulation about equal treatment are taking place since years. Will you enter the discussion? This regulation increases the competence of the Ombudsman.

I.L: The Ombudsman is currently taking care of the national prevention mechanism, however he didn’t receive sufficient financial support for this. There is competence, however we’re lacking money. I am not closing myself fully to this proposal, but if the government and parliament want to make the Ombudsman a purely anti discrimination institution, then it’s important to consider a costly extension of the institution. In the project there’s a part about care over discriminated people. And this collides with the constitutional position of the Ombudsman. Currently we have 60 thousand complaints annually, recently we had the millionth case since the creation of the institution. We have a lot of work. Above that in the new project there’s the obligation of looking into each case, which creates a problem with maintaining judicial independence.

J.P: The problem with the regulation about equal treatment is that the Church opposes it. What can we do about this?

I.L: Are you sure?

J.P: Yes. Minister Radziszewska, who consulted the project with the Episcopal Conference, received a reply that the regulation can “turn out to be a dangerous opening subordination of Poland to indefinite pressure” and the suggestion to refrain from works.

I.L: There’s a project, there are works in Sejm, committees are working. If there’ll be such a need I’ll turn to the chairperson of the committee, asking if he needs extra expertise. We are at disposal, but we won’t relieve the parliament.

J.P: During an estimation of your candidature there appeared reservations, that you’re submissive about your position towards the Church. While there come out issues connected to the discrimination of women, sexual minorities or atheists, ideologically sparks fly. Will you have the courage of taking a different position than the hierarchy?

I.L: For years I was a member of parliament, during the times that very hot discussions were taking place. I was able to take a different position than my club. Such fears can result also from regional differences. I am used to the Church in Silesia, who were always able to find the route to maintaining autonomy. I can’t imagine, to exceed beyond then borders of a friendly chapter of the Church and state.

J.P: Recently the Tribunal in Strasbourg gave a sentence, which states that the situation in Polish schools, where there are no ethics lessons, is a violation of human rights. Will you take on any action?

I.L: The deputy Ombudsman Stanisław Trociuk already sent the question to MEN (Ministry of National Education), what steps they’re planning to take as a result of the verdict. The Ombudsman should intervene where the rules of community life are violated. The essence of the friendly chapter of the Church and state was from the beginning the record about religion and ethics lessons. I worked as a member of parliament on the concordat, and we decided then that there will be ethics in Polish schools. Poland didn’t violate the law. The verdict of the Tribunal in Strasbourg is connected mainly with practice. The number of people who don’t identify themselves with any belief is growing, and so is the number of immigrants. We need a common constitutional plane of values. I think, that the Church also understands that apart from religion, ethics are also necessary. There can’t be a situation, where a child doesn’t attend any of these lessons. We need to discuss the platform programme of ethics. Maybe it’s possible to formulate it in such a way, that it doesn’t cause fears and protests from the Church. I wouldn’t want it to be ethics directly translated from French or German textbooks. We have great ethics and great positions in our scientific achievements.

J.P: As an atheist, sending my child to ethics lessons, I don’t imagine that his program would be consulted with the Church.

I.L: We can’t exclude that someone who’s a teacher of religion, will complete postgraduate studies in ethics. Will you forbid him from learning?

J.P: I won’t send my child to such lessons.

I.L: You don’t have to close yourself like this. Open discussion about the contents of the programme, can prove that certain fears are groundless. Also delegates of the Church will possibly be convinced, that it’s nothing dangerous.

J.P: But why is the Church meant to have influence over what the children of atheists will be taught? They have ex-territorial teachers of religion. The state doesn’t have any influence over the contents of these lessons, or who conducts them.

I.L: Maybe we understand differently the word consulting. It’s not about agreeing, but about familiarizing with the position of the other side and flow of information. Yes it’s written down in the regulation about public consulting. If there’s a disputed regulation, you have to consult it with everyone. Often protests result from the fact that everyone is trenched in their own castle, and doesn’t want to hear about other arguments. I don’t think that you’re one of these people.

J.P: But it’s not a question of the regulation or even creating a programme base, because these are pretty good. But there’s still no ethics.

I.L: If the problem is practice, it’s also important, that in a small town there’s no social resistance against ethics lessons. Layers of distrust are huge and in order to break them down, there have to be discussions. I remember “ethics” lessons from my school, which were anti religious propaganda. Not only in Silesia can people from my generation have negative associations with ethics. The Church can also associate it with those attempts. Open discussion helps breaking stereotypes.

J.P: And can atheists count on your support on matters such as the surplus of religious symbols in the public sphere? First such complaints are already appearing.

I.L: It’s a question of what we understand by surplus, because the word itself is already a kind of negative etiquette. What for one part of the society is simply presence, can be a surplus for another part of the society. Each particular case will be looked into separately.

J.P: What will the priorities if your work be?

I.L: The rights of the handicapped and the elderly. The law and social reality don’t take into account the radical increase in life expectancy. There are no shops for the elderly in Poland, where you can buy everything, which makes life much easier and more independent for older people. I also spoke to the Swedish ambassador about good examples of action towards the handicapped. Wouldn’t it be great if, for example, in Ikea or other furniture shops there would be model rooms for the handicapped?

These people are sometimes left to themselves. The country, NFZ, local-governments don’t notice yet the new age distribution. There are people who are sacked just because they are over 55 or 60 years old and in a moment they’ll be contemplated under pensions. Aged people are pushed into credit traps by banks, who call them few times a day, which is almost harassing. In this issue I will want to step forward for a reaction of the public authorities. There are completely new methods of hurting and bantering people. The authorities have the responsibility of protecting them, and the Ombudsman of controlling this.

J.P: The laws of the elderly and handicapped are a serious problem, however quite safe. Ideological arguments won’t arise here, the Church won’t protest, demonstrations against the elderly won’t go onto the streets. Aren’t these priorities to a certain extent an escape from confrontation. 

I.L: That’s a stereotype. In Germany I saw such demonstrations. In Germany there’s an atmosphere of general argument about social pensions and retirement pensions, which the young don’t want to pay. Here it’s a question of maybe 10 years, before someone finds courage to proclaim such views. We can therefore anticipate certain phenomenon. I also want to discuss this with local-governments, asking: does your community guarantee the elderly, the realistic right to independent life.

J.P Maybe using this occasion, you will also ask why they aren’t capable of organizing ethics lessons in schools?

I.L: This doesn’t have to be using this occasion. I was moved by opponents, who while I was running for my post, expressed fears that I’ll be too nice, good, soft and as a patriot I won’t want to do anything which could harm the country. Harm no, but disturb the comfortable peace, demand change, yes.


*The original of the article is available at: http://www.polityka.pl/kraj/rozmowy/1507772,1,rozmowa-z-prof-irena-lipowicz.read


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