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Opinion: Poland infringing on yet another human right while the European community watches silently

UN human rights experts join feminist organisations in condemning Polish Legislation

15.05.2018 |

Civil society hosting a peaceful demonstration at the in-session meeting of the climate negotiations in Bonn (SB48), demanding Poland to scrap their new Legislation. Photo: Nathalie Rengifo

By Hanna Gunnarsson, Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), first published in the Beam Magazine.


The Polish Legislation is so harmful, even the UN condemns it!

Many of you have been following the Black Friday marches, and the outrageous ban on abortions in Poland. Their conservative ruling party have now done it again, this time they are targeting environmental defenders and those most affected by climate change. A new Legislation, specifically enacted to prohibit spontaneous gathering and which gives local authorities the right to collect and store information, is a damning step to limit public participation at the upcoming global climate negotiations (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, later this year. The new Legislation has surprisingly managed to stay off the radar, while the international and European community has been continuing their “business as usual”.

While civil society organisations have made several attempts at bringing this issue into the attention of mainstream press and policy-makers, international media is finally reporting on it. Five UN human rights experts recently joined the feminist and other civil society organisations demand to repeal this harmful new Legislation. Meanwhile, most European media shines in its absence, except from a few reports, such as the one by Deutsche Welle. You would almost assume that this was not happening on our doorsteps.

In a recent statement, the UN experts called on Poland to “ensure free and full participation” at COP24. They are particularly worried about article 17, giving authorities the right to collect and store data, and 22, prohibiting any spontaneous protests or gatherings. In other words, the Polish Legislation is so harmful, even the UN condemns it!

The new Polish Legislation, is not only going against its own Constitutional Law, it is also infringing upon several regional and international human rights conventions to which Poland is a member state. These include the European Convention on Human Rights; The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

 UN expert John Knox, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, at a peaceful demonstration commemorating women human rights defenders who have been murdered, at UNEA3 in Nairobi last year. Photo credit: Natalia Mroz, UN Environment


Peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Marrakech during the climate negotiations in 2016 (COP22). Here local, regional and international feminists demanding climate justice at the climate march. Photo: Annabelle Avril / WECF


What’s at stake?

It is still unclear how the Polish Bill will be effective in practice during COP24. We don’t know how the local Polish authorities will interpret what constitutes an “assembly”, if any gathering on town squares will be seen to fit this definition. Given the worrying trends of increasing right-wing movements in Poland and neighbouring countries, last year neo-nazies staged a demonstration in Warsaw that was attended by 60,000 nationalists, there is certainly a risk of racial profiling by the local police.

Environmental and human rights defenders, the people who are fighting on the frontlines of climate change against oil and extractive industries, are the ones who will be disproportionately affected by this Bill. It would be a direct threat to their security, and lives, if information about them are stored and used by third parties.

“The Bill is specifically drafted to target any organising and mobilisation of environmental defenders and people’s movements against detrimental climate policies,” says the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development in their statement.

The Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Patricia Espinosa, told the the civil society that their concerns have been heard and forwarded to the Polish authorities. They will now take the issues back to their country before responding. Meanwhile Espinosa did stress that the practices of demonstrations within the UNFCCC facilities at Katowice will remain the same as previous years, it does not negate the fact that outside the “UN bubble” human rights are being targeted while decision-makers silently stands beside.

Demonstrations and public participation is essential to put pressure on our decision-makers. It bridges the gap between what policies sets out to do, and what needs to happen. Seen in the photo, the feminist block during the massive climate march in Bonn before COP23. Photo: Shubhangi Singh, Survival Media Agency

There have been talks of boycotting the climate negotiations in Katowice, by many of the civil society organisations in the Global South. Meaning, we stand to lose the most important voices in these negotiations, the people most affected by the historical externalities of the Global North and the big polluting multinational corporations. This will be particularly detrimental, as the international community is looking to finalise the Paris Agreement’s Work Programme (the “Paris Rulebook”), that will guide the member states in their implementation of the agreement.

Let us be realistic, this Rulebook will be with us for a long while, do we really want it to be a product of right-wing conservatives’ bullying, or do we want it to be based on the lived realities of people on the frontlines of climate change? To quote the UN experts in their statement: “All eyes are on the Polish Government to see how, as the host and the president of COP24, it will honour its human rights obligations and uphold its responsibility to ensure free and unfettered access for broader participation.”

Feminists and other civil society organisations will continue to fight for their human rights to freedom of assembly and expression, speech, autonomy and access to information. We cannot let right-wing, conservative and neoliberal agendas dictate the future of climate action! Will you join us in our struggle or stand silently on the sidelines?


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