21st Mar 2018


Left unchecked, Poland's attack on rights will harm EU

  • PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski greets Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo in parliament (Photo:

Since it came into power in October 2015, Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has gone to great lengths to dismantle the fundamental checks and balances against government abuse of power on which functioning democracies depend.

In a democracy the need to protect people's rights imposes limits on government power and in the event those safeguards don't prevent rights violations, it should be possible to get redress through independent courts.

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  • Warsaw: Polish government has ignored all three EU recommendations (Photo: Kamil Porembinski)

Yet the Warsaw government has misused its democratic mandate and parliamentary majority to chip away aspects of these basic legal protections.

In a report released on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch shows how over the past two years, Poland's ruling party has sought to bring the country's top courts and judicial appointments under its control.

It has introduced legislation that curbs media freedom, further restricted women's reproductive rights by banning the morning-after pill, granted excessive and arbitrary surveillance powers for combatting terrorism to its secret service agency, violated asylum seekers' rights at the Belarus border, limited freedom of assembly, and sought to restrict funding to nongovernmental groups.

Poland - EU's problem child?

The government's moves are not just policy choices or academic questions.

They undermine the rights of everyone in Poland. At some stage everyone may need to turn to independent institutions, such as the courts, prosecutors and police, to safeguard their rights and interests. It could be that they are the victim of a bad landlord, an abusive employer, or of crime, but they should be able to rely on the system to protect them.

The key regional experts and institutions with which Poland is affiliated, including the European Commission, Council of Europe's Venice Commission, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights, have raised concerns and urged the government to change course.

But to compound the problem, Poland's government has dismissed the criticism, citing national sovereignty, and largely ignored their recommendations.

Ordinary citizens should be able to trust their governments to respect basic rights such as free speech, freedom of assembly, and privacy.

People should expect that a democratically-elected government will seek to work within the rule of law rather than actively to undermine it.

Particularly when their government is an EU member, as Poland is, citizens should expect the government to follow EU law that requires respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law as founding values of the Union.

If that is not happening, then it's essential for the EU to do something about it. The European Commission and European Parliament have rightly called on Warsaw to change its course.

Warsaw is not listening

In 2016, the Commission for the first time triggered a process designed to address systemic threats to the rule of law in member states. As part of this process, known as the 'rule of law mechanism', the Commission has issued the Polish government three sets of recommendations.

One was around the need to roll back a law paralysing the work of the constitutional tribunal, the second was to drop measures that interfere with the independence of the judiciary, and the third addressed political influence in appointing and dismissing judges at the common courts. The Polish government has ignored all three.

The Polish government's actions don't just pose a domestic threat. They threaten the values of the European Union itself and undermine the credibility of its efforts to promote human rights around the world.

We have already witnessed how the EU's failure to take serious action against Hungary when its government systematically implemented policies that undermine democratic and human rights safeguards, helped embolden Poland's leaders to do the same.

The Commission should take the next step under the rule of law procedure and trigger Article 7(1) of the EU treaty.

Ultimately, if the Polish government doesn't change course, it could result in the suspension of the country's voting rights in the EU Council. Both the European Parliament and EU member states in the Council should support the Commission's move.

No less than the credibility of the Union itself is at stake.

Lydia Gall is the Balkans and eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO


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