Poland’s “constitutional crisis” raises human rights concerns at UN

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has expressed concern about Poland’s current situation leading to human rights problems related to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, rights of minorities, gender and sexual reproductive rights, as well as media rights.

“The Polish authorities and media attempt to dismiss external opinions as politically motivated, biased, or as attempts to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. However, we have seen the same conclusions and recommendations being issued by the Human Rights Committee, the European Commission, and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.” commented Florian Irminger, Head of Advocacy at the Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF). 

“The question remains, as usual the same, will the government adopt the recommendations and address them in a proper way in order to increase the level of protection of human rights in Poland” commented Małgorzata Szuleka from the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR), in the above video where she discusses the issues that were raised during the Committee sessions in October. 

The review at the Human Rights Committee took place against the backdrop of the ongoing “constitutional crisis,” which began in autumn 2015 when the newly elected president refused to swear into office the judges appointed to the Constitutional Tribunal by the previous parliament. This new governing majority also adopted many changes to acts on police, public media, and anti-terrorism, and a minority of parliament recently also attempted to further sharpen the conditions under which women can terminate a pregnancy. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights stated that these changes raise “serious concerns” from the perspective of human rights protection.

The Committee reviewed the human rights situation of Poland on 17-18 October. The conclusions and recommendations of the Committee were published on 4 November 2016.

 “Constitutional crisis” and media rights

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights delivered a statement during the opening of the Committee session, and submitted a report to the Human Rights Committee where it stated that this review comes at a timely moment for Poland, “as there is a true threat to the respect of the rule of law and the democratic principles established since 13 September 1989.” The Polish HFHR further stated that the committee has “the opportunity through its dialogue with the Polish government to offer a path to reforms in order to guarantee the respect of human rights in the country.”

During the dialogue with the government’s representatives in Geneva, the Committee member Anja Seibert-Fohr raised the issue of amendments being made to the Constitutional Tribunal and how they might affect its functioning. She also questioned the decision of Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo to refuse the publication of judgments in the journal of law.

She also raised the issue of Poland’s public media, commenting on the “undue government control” regarding the hiring of a broadcasting chief.

In its recommendations, the Committee highlighted its concern about the independence and functionality of the Constitutional Tribunal. It recommended that the Polish authorities should ensure the integrity and independence of the Constitutional Tribunal and of its judges, and ensure the implementation of all its judgments. It also called for the Polish authorities to ensure a transparent and impartial process for the appointment of judges to the Tribunal, and for the immediate publication of all judgments of the Tribunal and to refrain from efforts to obstruct its effective functioning.

The Committee, in its recommendations, addressed concerns about, public service media. In particular, with regard to the broadcasting services, the Committee noted that they “appear retrogressive in the protection of the guarantees that ensure the independent broadcasting of the public TV and Radio services”. The Committee particularly called on the authorities to guarantee broadcasting services’ independence and editorial freedom.

Referring to budgetary cuts incurred by the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee urged the Polish authorities to provide adequate resources to this institution so that it can effectively and independently implement its mandate in full. 

Finally, the Committee also addressed the issue of voluntary termination of pregnancy, stating it is “concerned about significant procedural and practical obstacles faced by women to access safe legal abortion, which prompt women to travel long distances or abroad to access safe legal abortion” and called upon Poland to “ensure that its legislation does not prompt women to resort to clandestine abortions that put their lives and health at risk.” The Committee also addressed the issue of the conscientious clause, about which the government replied that “most Poles considered abortion to be evil and to be the taking of a human life, a view generally shared by medical professionals as well, which was the reason for the conscience clause.”

An infographic from HFHR summarising the process of States’ review at the UN Human Rights Committee and the role of different stakeholders.

Poland needs to implement recommendations 

Similarly to the way the authorities rejected the findings of the Committee, on 27 October, the authorities in Poland rejectedlist of recommendations from the European Commission branding them “groundless” and based on “incorrect assumptions” with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo calling them “incompatible with the interests of the Polish state and citizens”. 

These recommendations are a part of the first instance of the Commission launching an EU infringement procedure with a member state, and as a result of Poland’s answer, the Commission could now decide to trigger the Article 7 procedure, which could ultimately result in sanctions and in the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the Council.

“Poland is a model for Europe. Its commitment to universal human rights is essential and therefore we hope for Poland to take the recommendations made by the Human Rights Committee seriously and be a model in reporting on their implementation,” said Florian Irminger.



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