Poland has been a liberal democracy ever since it transitioned from communism in 1989. It is a nation that enjoys free and fair elections and civil liberties protections; however, there is a strong partisan divide in Poland. The Law and Justice Party has become skeptical of the efficacy of liberal democracy; it has enacted a number of authoritarian reforms, enhancing the power of the party and undermining checks and balances enshrined in the Polish constitution. Here are seven facts about human rights in Poland:
- Speech is free in Poland, but there are some limitations. A person with a public platform can be fined and even jailed for promoting anti-government activity, amorality and disrespect for religion. However, these restrictions are rarely enforced.
- Freedom of the press is a constitutional human right in Poland, but recent laws enacted by Poland’s governing party have limited that freedom. Starting in 2017, journalists must be pre-approved in order to interview legislators in the halls of Parliament. The Law and Justice Party has also made moves to have more influence on public media. The party amended Polish law so that the treasurer has the power to choose the heads of public media, rather than an independent board. Polish public media officials were quickly replaced with Law and Justice party officials after the amendment was passed.
- Roma, LGBT and Muslim communities experience frequent discrimination in Poland. In 2016, violent hate crimes rose by 40 percent and most of these attacks targeted Muslims. Despite this, Poland has shut down its Council for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance.
- Women have equal rights in Poland, but domestic violence and sex trafficking are still significant issues. The Polish government recently defunded the Women’s Rights Center, which had played a major role in aiding female victims of domestic violence. Polish officials have claimed that they shut down the institution because it did nothing to help the male victims of domestic violence.
- Poland has been going through a constitutional crisis, as the Law and Justice Party has taken steps that increase the power of the party and reduce the power of the Constitutional Tribunal – the nation’s highest court. The crisis began when the Law and Justice Party refused to seat five judges appointed to the court by the previous ruling party, and instead nominated their own. The tribunal ruled this act unconstitutional, but the government refused to release the ruling, making it technically non-binding. The Polish government has passed several laws designed to make the tribunal run less efficiently, and has appointed party ally Julia Przyłębska to be president of the tribunal. These actions have raised concerns among the EU and the U.S. that the Polish government is eroding democratic checks and balances.
- In 2016, Poland passed a counter-terrorism law that gives the government far-reaching surveillance powers. The law allows for the government to wiretap and monitor the communications of people the government fears might be involved in terrorism-related activities. The government has the power to continue these activities for three months without oversight, as well as use illegally obtained evidence in court and detain suspects for up to two weeks.
- Polish prisons fail to meet the standards set by other European countries. The minimum legal size of a jail cell in Poland is 32 square feet, which falls below the internationally recognized standard. Many prisons are in need of renovations and lack adequate healthcare and accommodations for prisoners with disabilities.
Though the Polish ruling party is encroaching on the nation’s civil liberties, there are still actions that can be taken to protect human rights in Poland. Poland still has free and fair elections, and if that remains unchanged, the Polish people have the power to democratically reject these illiberal reforms by voting in candidates that promise to restore power to the Constitutional Tribunal. The EU also has the power to sanction Poland if it goes too far – something it threatened to do last month in the face of efforts to stack the Constitutional Tribunal with even more party allies. Both of these situations should bring hope to the people of Poland, as it makes the improvement of their human rights a very possible outcome of the future.
– Carson Hughes