‘We are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Martyna Bogaczyk, president of the board of the Education for Democracy Foundation, a Polish civil society organisation that has promoted democracy since 1989, with a focus on three areas: democracy education in schools, civic duty and activism, and global solidarity.
1. What would you say are the most pressing challenges that democracy faces in Poland?
As you know, in Poland as in much of Central Europe space for civil society is shrinking. In Hungary, in particular, the government is introducing legal changes that are making things harder and harder for civil society. So indeed, some actions by other actors, notably governments, are having a negative effect on civil society. But right now, I would rather focus on the challenge that stems from developments that are taking place within society, and civil society, itself.
I would place the origins of the current division that affects Polish society mainly in two historical points: the introduction of economic reform in the early nineties, which had dramatically unequal effects on society, and the Smolensk catastrophe: the 2010 plane crash that killed the President of Poland along with many government officials, members of parliament, senior military officers, figures of culture and civic activists. In my opinion, it was this catastrophe, and the different ways it was processed by either side of society, that showed us how different from one another we are, and how different our perceptions of reality and visions of Poland are. I believe this was the beginning of a process that resulted in more radical political movements reaching parliament, and politics becoming a lot more polarised. The division within Polish society was exacerbated.
I would say we are currently divided into two ‘clans’, each with its own history, historical memory, values, assessments and political positions. This is the biggest democratic challenge for us, because we have reached a situation in which we find it difficult to talk to each other. As a result, a civilised and meaningful political conversation cannot take place. Families cannot talk normally around the Christmas table anymore. People who are on either side of this cultural and political divide are not talking to each other.
2. How has this division affected organised civil society?
Polish civil society is wide and diverse: it includes not just formal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on democratic governance issues, but a whole range of organisations, from trade unions to student organisations, and from religious associations to grassroots movements to service providers. There is a sector of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on the rule of law, education for democracy, anti-discrimination and human rights, which has a very critical view of what is going on and is working to bridge the gaps. But let’s not forget that civil society also includes countless organisations that provide social services, such as education and healthcare. I believe that some of them may have other opinions about these developments. Some of them don’t care or don’t think that these developments affect them, and still others are not speaking about them for fear of losing public funding, which can be one of main sources of income for them.
3. Are you witnessing rise of so-called ‘un-civil society’, as it is happening elsewhere?
Indeed. ‘Un-civil society’: I think that’s a good way to put it. Because civil society also includes a number of organisations that are waging a cultural war and deepening the divide. They are occupying spaces meant for civil society and they are even grabbing the human rights language for their own purposes, using it against the advancement of rights.
In fact, I would say in this respect we have three distinct problems. First of all, there’s the phenomenon of GONGOs (government-organised NGOs). We call them ‘mirror NGOs’, because they mimic the structure of existing, legitimate ones. And when the government is pushing for a specific reform, these organisations support the government’s initiative, and the government can say that it consulted with civil society and that civil society is in its favour.
Second, there is the fact that both fake CSOs and other groups that may be ‘legitimate’ civil society - in the sense that they are not government-organised - but that do not promote rights and democracy, are also borrowing the language of democracy and human rights. This is a completely new experience for us, because after the fall of communism and the transition to democracy in 1989, we believed we were past all of this: that we had a functioning democracy, we were part of the European Union, so these were our shared values. And now we are realising that these values are in fact the object of a dispute, that they don’t mean the same thing for everybody, and that for some, they are just a means to a different end.
Third, we are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society, in the form of an anti-rights discourse that is anti-Semitic, anti-migrants, anti-refugees. This discourse is becoming normalised to the point that to a growing sector of the population, it is perfectly acceptable. Rights have become something that can be traded. Rather than being recognised as universal, they can be denied to ‘them’ if that means more benefits can be distributed among ‘us’. So many Polish citizens are voting for right-wing parties that promise them social benefits that won’t be ‘snatched’ by foreigners, because they are going to keep them out.
4. How is progressive civil society reacting to this situation?
Many organisations are working to bring dialogue back into local communities. The change that we need will not happen as a result of a more liberal and human-rights oriented political party winning the elections, but through a change in the political conversation. We need to sit people on opposing sides at the same table and teach them how to hold a dialogue and discuss issues that are close to them. We are not trying to have them agree on everything; in fact, what we want is for people to understand that it would be impossible for all of us to agree on everything, and what we need to do instead is accept plurality and diversity. But we do want to hold a conversation aimed at achieving consensus on core values: those that make it possible to have a conversation in the first place.
Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
5 countries on CIVICUS Monitor watchlist presented to UN Human Rights Council
Statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
This Council has identified restrictions on fundamental freedoms as a warning sign of an impending human rights crisis. Five countries were highlighted in the latest CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist, which puts a spotlight on a group of countries where there has been a rapid decline in respect for civic space.
These include Myanmar, where a military coup has led to deaths of at least 50 protesters, and the arbitrary detention of more than a thousand activists, protesters and politicians, while journalists are targeted daily.
In Nicaragua, there has been systematic repression of demonstrations. Human rights defenders, journalists and perceived political opponents face criminalisation and harassment, and a recent onslaught of repressive laws hinders civic space still further.
In Poland, months of ongoing protests sparked by a near-total ban on abortion have been met with excessive force by authorities and far-right groups. Laws and reforms which undermine judicial independence and the rule of law have been passed since 2015 and media freedom is under threat.
In Russia, there have been large scale attacks on peaceful assembly and journalists during the massive nationwide peaceful protests. Over 10,000 protesters have been detained.
In Togo, where civic space has been backsliding since 2017, the detention of a journalist and trade unionists and the suspension of a newspaper are recent examples highlighting the deterioration in the respect of civic freedoms.
The Council cannot fulfill its protection or prevention mandates unless it is prepared to take meaningful action in situations which show such warning signs. We call for stronger scrutiny on Myanmar and Nicaragua to be brought by the Council this session, and for due attention on Poland, Russia and Togo to prevent deteriorating situations on the ground.
Civic space ratings by CIVICUS Monitor Open Narrowed Obstructed Repressed Closed
5 países de la lista de vigilancia de CIVICUS se presentan al Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU
Declaración en el 46º período de sesiones del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU
Este Consejo ha identificado las restricciones a las libertades fundamentales como una señal de alarma de una inminente crisis de derechos humanos. Cinco países han sido destacados en la última lista de vigilancia de CIVICUS Monitor, la cual pone el punto de mira un grupo de países en los que se ha producido un rápido declive del respeto al espacio cívico.
Entre ellos se encuentra Myanmar, donde un golpe militar ha provocado la muerte de al menos 50 manifestantes y la detención arbitraria de más de mil activistas, manifestantes y políticos, mientras que los periodistas son objeto de ataques diarios.
En Nicaragua se ha producido una represión sistemática de las manifestaciones. Los defensores de derechos humanos, los periodistas y los presuntos opositores políticos sufren criminalización y acoso. Además, una reciente oleada de leyes represivas obstaculiza aún más el espacio cívico.
En Polonia, las autoridades y los grupos de extrema derecha han respondido con una fuerza excesiva a los meses de protestas desencadenadas por la prohibición casi total del aborto. Desde 2015 se han aprobado leyes y reformas que socavan la independencia judicial y el Estado de derecho. Asimismo, la libertad de los medios de comunicación está amenazada.
En Rusia se han producido agresiones a gran escala contra las reuniones pacíficas y los periodistas durante las masivas protestas pacíficas a nivel nacional. Más de 10.000 manifestantes han sido detenidos.
En Togo, donde el espacio cívico se ha visto limitado desde 2017, la detención de un periodista y de sindicalistas y la suspensión de un periódico son ejemplos recientes que ponen de manifiesto el deterioro del respeto a las libertades cívicas.
El Consejo no puede cumplir sus mandatos de protección o prevención a menos que esté preparado para tomar medidas significativas en situaciones que muestren tales señales de alerta. Pedimos que el Consejo lleve a cabo un examen más riguroso de Myanmar y Nicaragua en este periodo de sesiones, y que preste la debida atención a Polonia, Rusia y Togo para evitar el deterioro de la situación sobre el terreno.
Calificaciónes de espacio cívico - CIVICUS Monitor Abierto Estrecho Obstruido Represivo Cerrado
- Abortion Law | Mass protests across Poland
As NGOs speak out, expect clampdowns to grow
By David Kode
Across the globe, from East Africa to eastern Europe, there is a trend of increasing attacks on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support reforms governments are opposed to.
Read on: Open Global Rights
As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the crackdown on environmental activism, finds new report
New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor examines the crackdown of environmental activism and profiles important victories civil society has scored in the fight for climate justice.
- Environmental protests are being criminalised and met with repression on all continents
- State authorities and private companies are common perpetrators of violations to civic freedoms
- Despite the risks and restrictions, activist groups continue to score important victories to advance climate justice.
As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Negotiations (COP26), peaceful environmental activists are being threatened, silenced and criminalised around the world. The host of this year's meeting is one of many countries where activists are regularly facing rights violations.
New research from the CIVICUS Monitor looks at the common tactics and restrictions being used by governments and private companies to suppress environmental movements. The research brief “Defenders of our planet: Resilience in the face of restrictions” focuses on three worrying trends: Bans and restrictions on protests; Judicial harassment and legal persecution; and the use of violence, including targeted killings.
As the climate crisis intensifies, activists and civil society groups continue to mobilise to hold policymakers and corporate leaders to account. From Brazil to South Africa, activists are putting their lives on the line to protect lands and to halt the activities of high-polluting industries. The most severe rights abuses are often experienced by civil society groups that are standing up to the logging, mining and energy giants who are exploiting natural resources and fueling global warming.
As people take to the streets, governments have been instituting bans that criminalise environmental protests. Recently governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to disrupt and break up demonstrations. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor indicates that the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force by authorities are becoming more prevalent.
In Cambodia in May 2021, three environmental defenders were sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison for planning a protest against the filling of a lake in the capital. While in Finland this past June, over 100 activists were arrested for participating in a protest calling for the government to take urgent action on climate change. From authoritarian countries to mature democracies, the research also profiles those who have been put behind bars for peacefully protesting.
“Silencing activists and denying them of their fundamental civic rights is another tactic being used by leaders to evade and delay action on climate change” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Research Lead for the CIVICUS Monitor. “Criminalising nonviolent protests has become a troubling indicator that governments are not committed to saving the planet .”
The report shows that many of the measures being deployed by governments to restrict rights are not compatible with international law. Examples of courts and legislative bodies reversing attempts to criminalise nonviolent climate protests are few and far between.
Despite the increased risks and restrictions facing environmental campaigners, the report also shows that a wide range of campaigns have scored important victories, including the closure of mines and numerous hazardous construction projects. Equally significant has been the rise of climate litigation by activist groups. Ironically, as authorities take activists to court for exercising their fundamental right to protest, activist groups have successfully filed lawsuits against governments and companies in over 25 countries for failing to act on climate change.
Joint Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Submissions on Civil Society Space
CIVICUS makes UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on civil society space in Algeria, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Tunisia, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The United Nations Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States once every 4.5 years.
CIVICUS and its partners have submitted UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions on ten countries in advance of the 41st UPR session in October-November 2022, which marks the beginning of the 4th UPR cycle. The submissions examine the state of civil society in each country, including the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression and the environment for human rights defenders. We further provide an assessment of the States’ domestic implementation of civic space recommendations received during the 3rd UPR cycle over 4 years ago and provide a number of targeted follow-up recommendations.
Algeria - See consolidated report | See full version in English: The submission by CIVICUS, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, ARTICLE 19, Front Line Defenders, FIDH, MENA Rights Group, the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), SHOAA, and Alter’Solidaire highlights our concerns around the use of violence and restrictive legislation limiting freedom of expression and targeting protesters. It also documents the arrests of journalists, the targeting of civil society organisations and the attacks on human rights under the pretext of countering terrorism.
Brazil - See consolidated report | See full versions in English and Portuguese: CIVICUS and Instituto Igarapé examine the deterioration of civic space in Brazil, highlighting legal and extra-legal measures that have restricted freedom of expression and the participation of civil society in policymaking. The submission shows that violence against human rights defenders and journalists is widespread and continues to take place with impunity as the environment for civil society worsens.
Ecuador - See consolidated report | See full versions in English and Spanish: CIVICUS and Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (FCD) assess the important reforms removing legal restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression in Ecuador, while also highlighting the lack of institutional mechanisms to protect and promote an enabling environment for civil society, human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists. We discuss the recurrent judicial harassment, criminalisation and violence of these actors and the repeated repression of protests.
India - See consolidated report | See full version in English: This submission by CIVICUS and Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA) highlights the continued use of the draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) by the authorities to target CSOs, block foreign funding and investigate organisations that are critical of the government. It also documents the continued judicial harassment of human rights defenders and journalists and the use of repressive security laws to keep them detained as well as restrictions on and excessive use of force against protesters.
Indonesia - See consolidated report | See full version in English: In this UPR submission, CIVICUS, The Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), and YAPPIKA-ActionAid highlight, among other issues, the implementation of legal restrictions concerning civic space and fundamental freedoms, increased scrutiny and excessive use of force by authorities to control both offline and online civic space and the heightened repression against marginalised groups including people from and who work on the issue of Papua/West Papua.
The Philippines - See consolidated report | See full version in English: In this joint submission, CIVICUS and Karapatan detail systematic intimidation, attacks and vilification of civil society and activists, an increased crackdown on media freedoms and the emerging prevalence of a pervasive culture of impunity in the Philippines over the last five years. Often, crackdowns have taken place under the guise of anti-terrorism or national security interests. We further note that a joint programme on human rights between the Philippines and the UN established in July 2021 has not, to date, resulted in any tangible human rights improvement.
Poland - See consolidated report | See full version in English: CIVICUS and the Committee for the Defence of Democracy – Komitet Obrony Demokracji (KOD) highlight our concerns of the dismantling of judicial independence and the rule of law by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) Party, which has been used as a tool to violate civic freedoms. In this joint submission we examine cases of women HRDs (WHRDs) advocating for reproductive justice and LGBTQI+ defenders who are facing judicial harassment and intimidation. In addition, we assess the state of freedom of expression, with repeated attempts to diminish media independence through restrictive legislation, government allies acquiring ownership of major media outlets and the filing of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against independent media.
South Africa - See consolidated report | See full version in English: In this joint submission, CIVICUS, Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) highlight threats, intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders (HRD), in particular women HRDs (WHRDs) and those defending land and environmental rights, housing rights and whistleblowers. Furthermore, the submission addresses concerns over the continued use of force by security forces in response to protests and legal restrictions which undermine the freedom of expression and opinion.
Tunisia – See consolidated report | See full version in English: In this submission, CIVICUS and the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) highlight the increased deterioration of civic space in Tunisia, particularly since July 2021, when President Kais Saied suspended the parliament. Activists and journalists have faced increased attacks, prosecution and arrests, while access to information has been limited and media outlets have faced restrictions. In addition, the submission examines the government’s attempts to introduce restrictive legislation that could unduly limit the right to association.
The United Kingdom – See consolidated report | See full version in English: CIVICUS highlights our concerns on the UK government’s repeated attempts to unduly restrict the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly. We examine how the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSCB), introduced in March 2021, seeks to unduly limit this right. We discuss cases in which protesters advocating for climate justice and racial justice have faced undue restrictions, including detentions and excessive force. We also highlight how several laws have been used to unduly limit press and media freedoms.
Civic space in the United Kingdom is rated as Narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor. In Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, Poland, South Africa, Tunisia it is rated as Obstructed,whereas in Algeria, India, The Philippines civic space is rated as Repressed.
NGO letter to EU Ministers on rule of law and human rights situation in Poland
As the EU General Affairs Council prepares to hold a hearing on 22 February on the rule of law in Poland under the Article 7.1 TEU procedure, the undersigned civil society organisations would like to draw your attention to some alarming developments. Since the Council last discussed the situation in June 2021, a severe and steady decline in the respect for EU values in Poland has continued unabated. Despite the numerous actions undertaken by EU institutions since the procedure was launched in 2017, the Polish government has continued to systematically infringe upon those standards and ignore EU recommendations and the EU Court’s rulings.
Poland debates prison terms for abortion in new blow to women’s rights
🇵🇱#Poland: Today the Polish Sejm will discuss a bill which proposes a total #AbortionBan, jail time for having an abortion & criminalises those who provide assistance. Polish women are protesting: "This is a full blown war on women in Poland".#WarOnPolishWomen #16Days pic.twitter.com/DaevBFodUw— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) December 1, 2021
Joint press release by IPPF EN and CIVICUS
The Polish Parliament is set to discuss an anti-abortion bill from a religious ultra conservative group to jail women who access abortion and criminalize anyone who helps them do so, including family members, friends and doctors.
POLAND: ‘Abortion rights will inevitably be at the forefront of this year’s International Women’s Day’
CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Polish civil society’s role in advancing women’s rights with the team of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR).
Founded in 1989 by the members of the Helsinki Committee in Poland, the HFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to promote the development of a culture based on respect for freedom and human rights in Poland and abroad. Since 2007 it has had consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
What role has Polish civil society played in advocating for abortion rights, both before and during the pandemic?
Polish civil society has advocated for abortion rights for almost 30 years. Jointly with other CSOs, HFHR has continuously monitored the implementation of the legal provisions of the Abortion Act and represented women who were denied access to abortions they were entitled to.
One such case was P. and S. v. Poland, which led to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that declared Poland responsible for improperly hindering access to abortion by a 14-year-old girl. Polish laws allow abortion if the pregnancy is the consequence of a crime, and in 2008 P. was given a public attestation that authorised her to get an abortion due to her age, as sexual intercourse with minors under 15 is codified as a crime. But doctors in two hospitals refused to provide the abortion, and they even forced her to speak to a priest and disclosed her case to the media, as a result of which she was harassed by anti-abortion activists. They got the police involved and removed her from her mother’s custody. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Poland had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’.
That was a landmark case and should have been the gateway to a growing recognition of abortion rights. However, the situation only got increasingly worse. Despite civil society opposition, further restrictions were imposed on access to legal abortion. In October 2020, while we were in the middle of the pandemic, a Constitutional Tribunal judgement made access to abortion almost impossible in practice.
Civil society played a crucial role in mobilising in protest against the judgement. And thanks to the engagement of CSOs such as the Federation for Women and Family Planning and Abortion Dream Team, women who required access to abortion received information, legal assistance and other forms of help.
But as a reaction to these protests and acts of resistance, the environment for women’s rights activism deteriorated. Shortly after the protests, at least seven women’s rights and human rights CSOs advocating for sexual and reproductive rights were harassed and threatened and their activists targeted with disinformation campaigns from the government and government-aligned media. Several activists who participated in protests were detained and some face politically motivated criminal charges, including for allegedly breaking pandemic rules.
How has the pandemic impacted on your work?
HFHR is the oldest and largest human rights CSO in Poland. We provide legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses, monitor legal changes affecting human rights and participate in public discussion about the protection of human rights. We focus on the situation in Poland, but also on some other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
The COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted on our work. For obvious reasons, many of our in-person meetings were cancelled and we could not get people together. To substitute for this, we shifted online and enhanced our presence on social media. We used it to get in touch directly with our supporters. This allowed us to broaden our audience.
The pandemic also brought new and serious challenges to human rights, including but not only in the area of healthcare. HFHR has monitored pandemic-related legal developments, including restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. We analysed the impact of the pandemic on human rights protections and made recommendations about this, and intervened in a number of cases in which pandemic-related restrictions on fundamental rights were imposed that were disproportionate and unconstitutional, such as in cases involving restrictions on the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings.
How is civil society advocating for gender equality and how are the authorities responding?
The Polish government has not adopted a comprehensive strategy for promoting gender equality. Further, the state’s institutional system to protect equal treatment has been severely weakened. Not only is the state doing nothing – it is also not very welcoming of civil society initiatives on the matter.
CSOs continue working for gender equality through training activities, programmes and initiatives involving key stakeholders – for instance, by providing school training sessions on equal treatment. But instead of supporting these efforts, parliament recently adopted changes to the Education System Act that will significantly limit the access of CSOs to schools and educational facilities. The law has not come into force yet and has just been vetoed by the president.
The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?
We think the fact that it is now almost impossible to access abortion is one of the key issues hindering women’s rights in Poland. Sexual and reproductive rights will inevitably be at the forefront of IWD in Poland this year, and this will surely remain one of the priority topics for HFHR in upcoming years.
POLAND: ‘If lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, we can achieve big things’
CIVICUS speaks with Magdalena Demczak, co-founder and director of Akcja Menstruacja (Menstrual Action), about the work her organisation is currently doing to help Ukrainian refugees.
Menstrual Action is the first Polish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting people experiencing menstrual poverty. It is estimated that limited access to menstrual products, most often for economic reasons but also due to lack of adequate hygiene conditions or education affects around 500,000 people in Poland.
What made you decide to start helping refugees?
What made us decide to start helping refugees was the fact that we felt so helpless when watching the news, that we felt the need to help in any way we could.
At the beginning it was very hard for us to plan our actions because we had no idea what would happen. We were all a bit in shock at such an extraordinary situation. But we took immediate action: we supported checkpoints, raised funds and collected products that were sent to Ukraine directly, and also to the Polish-Ukrainian border. We also supported local Polish families who are hosting Ukrainian families and sites across Poland where Ukrainian refugees can seek information and legal assistance. In these locations there are people who speak Ukrainian and provide translation services.
What are the key needs you are seeing among refugees?
People escaping war in Ukraine are arriving in Poland with their hands empty. Right now, refugees are mostly women and their children carrying small bags, since men aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving: they must stay to defend their country. They are not bringing much – they are just trying to escape, so all they typically have is some clothes, documents and essential medicine.
They obviously need all kinds of things. First of all, they need shelter and transportation to get there. They also need food, clothing and baby products, among other things. As women make up a large proportion of refugees, there is also a lot of need for all kinds of feminine-care products. Women’s biological cycles – from periods to pregnancies – don’t stop because of a war. There is a massive need for period products, especially menstrual pads, because it’s very easy to forget all about pads when a war erupts and you must flee your country.
How is Polish civil society, and Menstrual Action more specifically, working to help refugees?
Polish civil society, and individual Polish citizens, are doing amazing things. There are lines after lines of cars at the border to pick anyone in need of transportation, willing to take them to any Polish city, free of charge of course. Hundreds of thousands are giving out rooms in their homes to Ukrainian refugees, for free and for as long as needed. There are so many amazing people and organisations out there helping refugees.
Unfortunately, we are aware that the war in Ukraine may last a long time and even after it ends, it will take time to rebuild cities so that people can come back. This means refugees may have to stay in Poland for quite a bit. So a more systemic approach is needed.
Since the early days, Menstrual Action has been shipping sanitary products to refugees; a few days ago, for instance, our volunteers brought 180 kilograms of sanitary pads to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Quite a few of our volunteers are now working directly at the border, not because we sent them but because they chose to go.
But we are now ready to undertake more long-term actions. We have talked to local manufacturers of period products to buy directly from them, and we will distribute these products in various locations and communities, as well as to CSOs working with refugees. While normally we would focus on period poverty, in such an extraordinary situation we are also supporting wider groups of refugees by providing adult diapers and other sanitary products such as toilet paper.
As an organisation, we have the capacity to provide sanitary and menstrual products. Our contribution saves other charities money that they can better spend on other humanitarian needs. Sending goods to the border can be a logistics nightmare, so if by shipping them ourselves we can save others a significant amount of money they can invest elsewhere, we feel that our work is done.
The actions of any specific organisation will always be too small to fulfil the needs of millions of people fleeing a war. But if lots of tiny actions are performed by many people, I believe we can achieve big things.
Have your existing capacities and resources from your ongoing work proved useful?
Our network has proved vital. We have intensively used our connections with menstrual product manufacturers, suppliers and other charities. We regularly support hundreds of Polish schools with menstrual products, but this year we were able to send out those packages earlier than usual to make room in our warehouses and gather menstrual products to be distributed among Ukrainian refuge centres around Poland.
Before the crisis, we started a project called Pad Sharing, which connects donors with people who need menstrual products. If you are poor and having your period, and you had to choose between food and pads, you would get food, right? So we partnered with Rossmann drugstore, put up a form for people in need to enter their name, an address to locate the closest Rossmann store, an email address and the required product and amount. We receive the form and forward it to a donor who gets the list of products needed and does the shopping. When they are done, the person in need gets a call that their order is ready for pick-up at the Rossmann drugstore of their choice. We are just intermediaries and the person who needs help remains anonymous during the whole process. We have so far supported 2,200 people this way.
This project became vital in the current situation. We translated the Pad Sharing form into Ukrainian and shared it online. We emphasised that, due to the extraordinary situation, people can request anything from the pharmacy, not just menstrual products. We don’t provide medicine but can refer them to other organisations that do. We are aware of refugees’ needs, and so are our donors.
Have you seen any evidence of non-white refugees being treated differently?
I’ve seen many clips of Black people waiting at the border and read several allegations that some were refused entry into Poland. But I’m a white woman who currently isn’t even living in Poland but in the UK, so I’m extra-privileged. I didn’t cross the border, I wasn’t there and I don’t pretend to speak for non-white people or to know about their personal experiences.
Some people have pointed out that the current attitude towards Ukrainian refugees differs from how other refugees have been treated, including Afghan refugees trying to cross to Poland from the Belarusian border. We are aware that the reaction may have been different, but Menstrual Action did help Afghan refugees at the time – we contacted and connected various organisations to help Afghan refugees.
There is a Polish organisation called Black Is Polish, established by Black Polish women from various backgrounds, which is helping Black people and other people of colour escape Ukraine. There’s been a lot of disinformation on social media. For instance, it has been said that only people with Ukrainian passports could cross the border. This is not correct: anyone can seek refuge in Poland. This disinformation was very harmful to people of colour trying to escape Ukraine.
I won’t deny we Eastern Europeans have many racism issues, but I wouldn’t want this to detract from the biggest issue we currently face: war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. There is a disinformation war going on. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Relations has even said that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine. Russian-funded trolls are trying to instrumentalise racist incidents that have indeed happened on the border to put Ukraine on the ‘bad side’ and to justify the Putin regime and its war of aggression.
What could people internationally be doing to help?
The first thing they should do is follow the news through reputable sources. They must be aware of circulating disinformation and fake news. Before clicking ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘subscribe’, you must think why you are getting this piece of news, where it is coming from, what the intentions are behind it and who would benefit if you spread it. Would it be beneficial for struggling people, or would it benefit the Putin regime? The international community must stay aware and cautious because it’s very easy to get lost in the news if you live far away from Ukraine.
If you have money to donate, you should support legitimate organisations helping people inside Ukraine who cannot escape and those who chose to remain there to fight for their country. We still have an international donations systems to receive donations from anywhere around the world.
People in other global regions are not taught a lot about the history of the Soviet Union, its beginnings and its end, and the establishment of countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. So if you can, try to learn this part of history and to understand why this part of the world looks the way it does. It’s very important to understand how the past influences the present and to make sure the worst of history does not repeat itself.
POLAND: ‘In reaction to conservative backlash, public support for LGBTQI+ rights is on the rise’
CIVICUS speaks about 2023 Pride and Polish LGBTQI+ rights organisations’ response to the conservative backlash against LGBTQI+ rights with Annamaria Linczowska, advocacy and litigation officer at Campaign Against Homophobia (KPH).
Founded 2001, KPH is a Polish LGBTQI+ civil society organisation (CSO) working to counter violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through political, social and legal advocacy.
POLAND: ‘People are more understanding and supportive of LGBTQI+ issues than politicians’
Following our 2019special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences in facing anti-rights backlash and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about recently established ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland with Bart Staszewski, a young LGBTQI+ activist. Bart works as a freelance videographer for various civil society organisations and is a co-founder and board member of the Lublin Equality March Association (LEMA), an organisation that he defines as ‘an LGBTI NGO inside the LGBT-free zone’. For the past eight years, Bart has also taken part in the struggle for marriage equality led by theLove does not Exclude Association.
Photo by Przemyslaw Stefaniak
What challenges do the LGBTQI+ community and its organisations face in Poland?
I think the main problem is homophobia, which is growing due to the regressive government at all levels, from the national level to the very local. Governments at these different levels are using the same hate speech that we have already seen in Russia, in exactly the same wording, for example accusing LGBTQI+ organisations of disseminating ‘homo-propaganda’. We are also facing growing homophobia on public TV, which disseminates what are basically ‘fake news’ stories about us. They have even used our Facebook posts against us. For instance, during the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2019, some of us were not so positive about a candidate who happened to be the only gay candidate and wrote about it on Facebook. Quotes from our Facebook posts were then used in a campaign against this candidate, to show that even gay activists opposed him.
They also produced a documentary, ‘Invasion’, which stated that the Polish LGBTQI+ movement is sponsored by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who according to them is paying people to attend Pride events; this is why, according to them, so many people are attending our events. They filmed this thing by having people pose as volunteers with LGBTQI+ civil society organisations (CSOs) and bring a spy camera into Pride marches. According to Polish law, CSO volunteers have to get paid a small fee, somewhere between €5 and €8, when travelling outside the city. They used this to create a story that LGBTQI+ organisations are bribing people into attending Pride marches. They do this because while homophobia is on the rise, the LGBTQI+ movement is also growing, and our events are in fact getting the biggest turnout ever, so they are looking into new ways to defame us, including by saying that people are in it for the money.
But it is not just the government and the state media. The LGBTQI+ movement is not as afraid of the government as we are of anti-rights organisations like Ordo Iuris, a right-wing legal foundation that offers legal assistance to municipalities that are curtailing LGBTQI+ rights. They are a think tank for anti-LGBTQI+ rights and anti-women’s rights policies, supporting reinforcing marriage laws as pertaining to the union of a man and a woman, total abortion bans and divorce bans. This group is quite well connected to the government; for instance, one of its prominent members was Poland’s Secretary of State under the previous right-wing government. They are also connected to Agenda Europe, a pan-European, Christian fundamentalist network that seeks to restore ‘natural order’ and that offers an umbrella for many right-wing organisations across Europe. They say they receive no funding from the government, but they are very well funded.
They have people who teach in schools and universities and who are running a series of campaigns against us. All of their advocacy and campaigns have turned us into easy targets. Many activists, including myself, have received death threats for denouncing homophobia. Last year the police raided the home of a woman who had created rainbow marriage stickers, like it was such a big deal. I am getting used to the idea and getting ready for something like this to happen to me too. The government has unleashed this with its homophobic rhetoric but now does not take responsibility for its consequences.
What are the so-called LGBT-free zones, and how are they impacting on the LGBTQI+ community?
A third of Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions ‘against LGBT propaganda’ which are essentially unwelcoming of LGBTQI+ people and practices – although the way they put it, it is as if being an LGBTQI+ person was some ‘foreign ideology’. As a result, these municipalities have become so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’. Local governments in these municipalities have issued non-binding resolutions in which they pledge to refrain from taking any action to encourage tolerance of LGBTQI+ people. While they do not have material implications in practice, their symbolic effect is huge, as they stigmatise LGBTQI+ people in a way that legitimises further attacks against us.
In other words, ‘LGBT-free zones’ are the formalisation of homophobia, the institutionalisation of prejudice. They confirm homophobes in their beliefs and encourage them to turn them into action. The hooligans who throw stones at us during Pride marches every year will now feel empowered because the law now tells them that they are ‘protecting Christian values against homo-propaganda and ideology’. Families that don't accept their LGBTQI+ kids will now feel more confident about their hateful decisions. Teachers will feel uncomfortable when teaching content on LGBTQI+ issues in schools, now that they know that local politicians are against it – and they are the ones who make decisions on school funding. Some teachers have even asked us if they are allowed to teach anything at all related to LGBTQI+ issues after the new policies were put in place.
An increasing number of citizens are more confident than ever that homophobia is good and something to be proud of. The idea that is being disseminated is that there is something wrong with LGBTQI+ people and you’d better be careful around them. Homophobic billboards have gone up in major cities across Poland, accusing homosexuals of molesting kids, associating them with paedophilia.
Can you tell us about your campaign to challenge ‘LGBT-free zones’?
Last year, as local governments were declaring ‘LGBT-free zones’ one after the other, I started thinking about how else to call attention to this given that the media was definitely not interested in homophobia as a problem. Our first campaign was in Lubin, where we created a billboard campaign called ‘Love is Love’. While it received some attention, in the end nothing changed and more ‘LGBT-free zones’ were introduced. I thought we needed to try something new. I wondered what I could do to highlight this problem. Along with my boyfriend we came up with the idea to order signs to place in ‘LGBT-free zones’, but then thought that the signs would not be enough: we needed human stories behind them, we needed to show the real people behind this struggle and inside these zones.
So I came up with another, very simple idea. I asked LGBTQI+ individuals that I knew in municipalities that had been declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ to participate in the project. It was key that the participants were from those areas, either still living there or – if we could not find any LGBTQI+ resident – that they had at least grown up there. I asked them if I could take a few photos of them with the signs, and honestly, I initially thought that this would be just an art project, something for an exhibition. I took the first photos of LGBTQI+ people standing behind the ‘LGBT-free zone’ signposts in December 2019. I asked photographers and art people to participate in the project, but nobody seemed to be interested; they told me that it was repetitive and ‘nothing new’. In December the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to condemn Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ and also the Polish Ombudsman made declarations about it. It was already January 2020 and I felt that nobody was interested in my project so I just uploaded some photos to Facebook page, and then created a webpage, in the hope of triggering some debate in Poland. I never imagined it would lead to a worldwide response.
Did you get any feedback from the people you photographed regarding the ways in which anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies are affecting their lives?
Initial reactions depended a lot on how much interest in politics people had. Some of them had not really thought about the amount of homophobia they had been coexisting with. One of my project’s participants, Kate, who was about 18 years old, first told me she did not feel anything had changed after her town had been declared an ‘LGBT-free zone’. But then I asked her how she felt in the small city that she lived in: could she hold hands with her girlfriend, go to a dance with her and dance together as a couple? And she said she could definitely not; she could not even imagine herself going out onto the street with her girlfriend. She was so deeply submerged in homophobia that she didn’t even notice it was happening.
Homophobia can be invisible, but statistics do not lie. Many young people are committing suicide, and two-thirds of them are LGBTQI+ people. Many members of the LGBTQI+ community have suicidal thoughts and depression. Some people are being kicked out of their homes and families for being gay; their own parents view them as diseased. And all of this is happening in silence. The people behind the hate campaigns against us would never know about it.
Another person who joined my project later spoke to a foreign journalist that I put her in contact with, and just a week later she got death threats over Twitter and Facebook, because the name of the village she lives in appeared in the news report. Now people want to burn her house down. Such is the severity of hate.
As the ‘LGBT-free zone’ campaign took off, several politicians from right-wing parties, as well as Ordo Iuris, appear to have notified the Prosecutor’s Office that by running it I have committed a criminal offence, but I have not yet received any official notification. For the time being, it seems that they are focused on preparing lawsuits against the Atlas of Hate, a map of anti-LGBTQI+ government resolutions in Poland put together by other LGBTQI+ activists.
What kind of support from the international community and from civil society around the world do Polish LGBTQI+ activists need?
Of course financial support is something that we always need, because right-wing CSOs are quite well funded, and we are not. But besides funding, we also need to put pressure on our government and the European Union (EU). European countries that have already enshrined LGBTQI+ rights and equality should support us loudly rather than quietly. This is the only thing that is working with this government. They are scared of the EU and of what other countries will say. So we need diplomacy where ambassadors tell the Polish government that they will lose funding if Poland carries on in this way. They need to constantly ask the Polish government about this and put pressure on them.
We need a well-organised campaign. People can create petitions – I have seen quite a few, and it was a big surprise to me that many of them were launched by private individuals in France and Germany – but after one week, they are dead. In France, 10 CSOs sent a letter to President Macron to ask him to speak up loudly against ‘LGBT-free zones’ during his visit to Poland. But he didn’t say a word about ‘LGBT-free zones’ or the situation of LGBTQI+ people. Maybe he said something in private, but not in front of the media. We need big CSOs to do something about this.
Fortunately, we are already growing in solidarity. Last year we had the biggest turnout at a Pride march in Poland. My association conducted a survey that showed that even when homophobia is at its highest in Poland, people are more supportive than ever and are marching for equality and in support of same-sex civil unions. Our biggest problem is with the politicians and not the citizens. People have the internet, they have HBO and Netflix, they are more understanding and supportive than politicians. Things are slowly changing for the best, and we need to make sure they keep going that way. But we need international support to do so, or we will end up like Hungary or like Russia in the hands of Vladimir Putin.
Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Lublin Equality March Association through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@marszlublin and@BartStaszewski on Twitter.
POLAND: ‘right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society’
CIVICUS speaks with Krzysztof Śmiszek, a member of the Polish Parliament and chair of the Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, the first of its kind in Poland, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights and activist responses to the anti-rights backlash.
Before entering politics in 2019, Krzysztof had been an activist for almost 20 years. He is also a member of Justice and Human Rights Committee, the European Union Committee and the Polish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of theCouncil of Europe.
What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Poland?
The situation for the LGBTQI+ community is really hard and complicated. In the last six years there wasn’t any progress at the legislative level so there are plenty of issues that remain unsolved, such as same-sex marriage, special legal procedures for the recognition of trans people’s identities and the prosecution of homophobic speech and hate crimes.
In 2015 the reins of Poland were taken over by a right-wing government and, in my opinion, the government is now using racism, xenophobia and homophobia to divide society. Since 2015 we have witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic speech as well as intolerant actions aimed at the LGBTQI+ community. The current government is not going to pass any legislation to make the lives of LGBTQI+ people easier.
I believe that the LGBTQI+ community has become a scapegoat: it is them that the government blames for any problem. A few years ago, it was refugees who played this part, and now they are also being targeted once again. The government also used to blame women’s rights organisations for everything, and now the LGBTQI+ community is being accused of the worse.
These are very hard times for the LGBTQI+ community in Poland, because whenever you tune in public TV, read the newspaper, or navigate government websites, you see it being used as a scapegoat. We are witnessing more and more hate crimes and incidents around Poland. Last year we had presidential election and the current president campaigned on an extremely ideological homophobic platform, and he won, which means that politicians and the government now believe that homophobic and transphobic discourse brings popularity.
Are there any reasons for optimism in such a bleak context?
There surely are, because right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society. After six years of witnessing hate speech, people who normally would not have been interested in LGBTQI+ issues have started to care. Civil society is much more progressive and open than the politicians in power. As an activist I see a huge energy that goes beyond the big cities in Poland: there are formal and informal initiatives springing up everywhere.
Although we are going through hard times, the strong civil society reaction against the government’s intolerance and homophobic discourse and agenda makes me feel optimistic. This year we had around 20 Pride events throughout the country. There is positive mobilisation within society, compared to the situation 20 years ago, when I first became an activist.
So the situation is more complex than you would think: while Poland does have its homophobic side, with organisations fuelled with a lot of money coming from the right wing, there is also a big movement supporting LGBTQI+ organisations and activists with money, time, energy and solidarity.
LGBTQI+ activism is using a wide range of tactics, from perfectly designed social media awareness campaigns including short movies about the normal lives of rainbow families to building connections with potential allies, even unlikely ones. A while ago an organisation working against homophobia allied with progressive Catholics, which was really smart because Poland is still regarded as a majority Catholic country. It was very wise to involve someone considered as ‘the enemy’ in the movement. There are also ongoing collaborations with politicians.
All the while the government spreads hate, younger generations, people between 18 and 29 years old, are increasingly normalising LGBTQI+ rights and actively and fully supporting the LGBTQI+ agenda. Of course, this does not mean that all young people are gay-friendly: as everyone else, they are divided between openness to European values and the intolerance of the radical right wing.
What is the Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, what are its goals and priorities, and what work does it do?
The Intergroup on LGBTI Rights includes members of different parties represented in Parliament who meet and discuss about LGBTQI+ issues. When I organise the group meetings, I perceive the interest of civil society: they want to participate and have contact with politicians. As an activist and now a politician, I view this as the wisest way to ensure progress on our agenda because having activists put pressure on politicians is something that actually works.
One of our priorities is making Parliament a safe place for the LGBTQI+ community. We believe that Parliament belongs to voters, and as LGBTQI+ people are voters, they have the full right to be present in Parliament and have contact with politicians.
The main challenge the Intergroup faces is to listen to the worries of the LGBTQI+ community and translate them into legislative proposals. And whenever there is a practical problem with the administration or related to action by public authorities, we are informed by representatives of the LGBTQI+ community and try to shed light on the issue with the help of the media. Politicians and parliamentarians have the power to bring media attention to specific issues.
As for our tactics, we organise press conferences and invite government representatives, we collaborate with the European Union and the European Parliament, where there’s also an LGBTQI+ group, we keep in touch with international partners and we try to make international audiences aware of what is going on in Poland. For example, when facing proposals to declare ‘LGBT-free zones’ throughout Poland, we brought it to the attention of the European Council and showed it proof that the Polish authorities were discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community. This is something that as politicians we are able to do.
Is that why you decided to enter politics? Having had experience as both an activist and a legislator, do you think you have been able to tackle the same problem from different angles?
As an activist I was the one knocking on politicians’ doors and it was their choice to be open to my arguments or not. After doing this for 20 years I thought ‘enough is enough’ and decided that I should now be the one opening doors for LGBTQI+ activists. That was my motivation to get into Parliament, along with the fact that I just did not agree with what was going on in Poland in terms of respect for fundamental human rights, under attack by right-wing politicians.
I belong to The Left, a centre-left political coalition that was founded to compete in the 2019 parliamentary election. Many of my friends who were also elected to Parliament are now recruiting people from civil society. As a result, now there are feminists who used to work at feminist civil society organisations, people who were involved in ecological movements and people like me, coming from the LGBTQI+ movement, who are playing a role in political institutions. All of us are tired of being just activists, and are now translating our experiences into the language of Parliament.
POLAND: ‘The crisis of democracy and human rights will deepen’
CIVICUS speaks with Małgorzata Szuleka about Poland’s recent presidential elections, held under the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ruling party’s use of anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to mobilise its electorate. Małgorzata is a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) Poland, one of the largest and oldest human rights organisations in Poland and the region. HFHR Poland represents victims of human rights abuses in court proceedings, conducts research and monitors human rights violations. Since 2015 it has actively monitored the increasing rule of law violations in Poland. It works with partners in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the European Union (EU) and the USA.
After rescheduling, the Polish elections were held in June and July 2020. What was civil society’s position on having an election during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The elections were originally scheduled for May 2020 and organising them posed a huge legal problem because there was no legal mechanism to postpone them. The only way to reschedule them was to announce a state of emergency, as provided for by the constitution. No elections may be organised during a state of emergency or within the next 90 days of it ending. From a constitutional perspective, an official declaration that the country was experiencing an epidemic would give the government the prerogative to introduce the state of emergency. This would automatically extend the term of office of the president until after regular elections could be scheduled, once the epidemic was over. However, the government did not follow this process. The elections were rescheduled and the run-off vote between the two leading candidates was held on 12 July 2020 on very dubious legal grounds. However, this wasn’t questioned by neither the government majority, nor the opposition.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) first pushed the government to organise the elections in a proper way, urging it to announce a state of emergency. Once this didn’t happen, CSOs tried to raise the issue of international monitoring, mainly in terms of fairness and financing of the campaign. The problem was that the election was expected to be free but not fair. Public media was biased towards the candidate supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, President Andrzej Duda, and extremely critical and unprofessional towards any opposition candidate. Even though no state of emergency had been declared, many fundamental rights such as the freedoms of assembly and access to information were limited. These were major concerns.
There was also the problem of the Supreme Court confirming the validity of the elections. On 12 July, President Duda was re-elected for a second term by a tight margin. He received 51 per cent of the vote while the opposition Civic Coalition contender received 49 per cent. Turnout was barely above 68 per cent, and more than 5,800 complaints were submitted regarding irregularities in the process. The Supreme Court ruled that 92 of those complaints were justified but had not influenced the final result, so it declared the results valid. Sadly, this decision completely ignored the problem of the constitutional and legal grounds for organising the elections in the first place.
Were measures adopted to protect people during the campaign and voting process? Did the pandemic have any impact on turnout?
The organisation of the campaign involved sanitary measures regarding social distancing and mask use. But these provisions were not fully respected on both sides. For campaigning purposes, the government loosened some restrictions; for example, even though face mask use was mandatory, pictures were published of the prime minister not wearing one in public. Also of concern was the fact that many public authorities engaged in political campaigning alongside President Duda. Public institutions were instrumentalised by ruling politicians. The government security centre, responsible for coordination and information in case of natural calamities or danger, sent out mass text messages on election day. Every voter received a message that said that people over 60 years old, pregnant women and people with disabilities could vote without waiting in line. This might have been used to mobilise the core electorate of the ruling party. This is just one example, but it could be an indication of the role played by official institutions to tilt the playing field in favour of the PiS party.
Was media coverage during the election fair?
Public media coverage was absolutely unfair. The rest of the coverage, mainly by private media, was relatively good; it definitely was not as bad as public media coverage, which was used for propaganda and enhanced President Duda’s campaign.
One of elections complaints brought to the Supreme Court specifically referred to media coverage. It stated that public television supported the incumbent while systematically discrediting his rival, and that public institutions and officials repeatedly violated correct conduct by supporting only one of the candidates. But the problem with the entire institution of election complaints is that you need to prove not only that the alleged irregularity happened, but also that it had an impact on the election results. In presidential elections such as this one, this is very difficult to prove. Additionally, the electoral code doesn’t regulate the work of the media, so it’s hard to make the legal claim that the media should operate differently. And if you do, it is also difficult to prove that particular coverage of a particular candidate, or the lack of coverage, resulted in a particular election result. We can intuitively assume this, particularly in view of such tight results, but it is very difficult to create a solid legal case.
What does President Duda’s re-election mean for democracy and human rights in Poland?
It is a continuation of a very worrying trend. Out of all possible campaign issues, President Duda chose to focus on stoking homophobia. The campaign took place in a context of a years-long backsliding of the rule of law, in the middle of a crisis of relations between Poland and the EU, during a huge healthcare challenge and on the verge of an economic crisis that will affect everyone in Poland. But none of these issues were the focus of the political campaign and public discussion. President Duda mainly spoke about LGBTQI+ people posing a threat to our Christian traditional heritage, equating homosexuality with paedophilia. The issue was narrowed down to this divisive, outrageous and dehumanising narrative by the PiS party. It was a very pragmatic move from PiS spin doctors because it mobilised the very core of the electorate. All of a sudden LGBTQI+ groups and communities became the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in Poland. It is outrageous how much this issue was politicised and how it was used to dehumanise this minority group. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch.
And the campaign was far from the end of it. President Duda is just a representative of the ruling PiS party, so he will say whatever he needs to keep them aligned. This is just a matter of calculation and internal power struggles. In June, the PiS party targeted LGBTQI+ people. In July, it targeted victims of domestic violence by starting discussion on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. In August, it proposed to register CSOs that are financed from abroad. Now I don’t know who is going to be their next enemy. It’s not only about being homophobic but rather about this governing majority always needing an enemy to confront or blame.
We just entered a phase in which there will be no elections for the next three years so we can expect a huge consolidation of power and the government doing everything that it dreams of, such as creating pressure on CSOs, further polarising the media, targeting specific minority groups and escalating the conflict with the EU. We can expect all of this to happen over the next three years. The only thing that can stop them is pragmatic evaluation about whether this is needed at this time or whether there might be something more important to do. But I think the crisis of democracy and human rights in Poland will deepen.
Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
POLAND: ‘We invented new forms of protest because we had to’
CIVICUS speaks to Klementyna Suchanow, an activist, author and researcher based in Warsaw, Poland, about the recentannouncement by the Polish governmentthat it will begin the process to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Violence against Women. Klementyna is one of the founders of thePolish Women’s Strikeand the International Women’s Strike. The Polish Women’s Strike is a grassroots feminist movement founded in 2016 to defend women’s rights against the government's plan to ban and criminalise abortion. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement has remained united and active via a Facebook group and continues to mobilise for women’s rights in Poland.
What has the situation of gender rights in Poland been over the past few years?
We are under a conservative government and while I would never say it was paradise five years ago, the situation for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights has recently worsened. Every day you witness more verbal and physical attacks against marginalised groups. Divisions have been created along political lines and the main targets of aggression have been immigrants and LGBTQI+ people. During the campaign for 2019’s European Parliament election and this year’s presidential election the main focus has been on hate against LGBTQI+ people. The wave of hatred is very intense and dealing with it is a challenge.
The situation of women and women’s rights movements is slightly different. Our new strand of popular feminism is very inclusive and pragmatic. This is why so many young people have joined us in recent months. We see younger generations become more politicised and aware. So the women’s movement is in a very strong position. It is the only movement that has succeeded in forcing the government to take a step back from its idea to ban abortion in 2016, and then later around other issues. It looks like our anger scares them, but they still keep doing things to worsen our situation.
In sum, women are experiencing setbacks in our legal situation but our power keeps growing. I am not sure if this is the case with the LGBTQI+ community, because they are a minority group and are more exposed. The situation of LGBTQI+ people is definitely getting worse on all fronts.
Have there been further regressions on gender rights during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Taking advantage of the pandemic, the government and other groups have made several attempts to roll back women’s sexual and reproductive rights. In May 2020, the Polish parliament proposed a bill that would remove the legal obligation for medical facilities to refer patients to other facilities if they refuse to provide abortion care based on their staff’s personal beliefs. Under current Polish law, a legal abortion can only be performed if the mother’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is a result of rape, or the foetus has a serious deformity. About 98 per cent of abortions fall under the latter category, but a bill was proposed in May to eliminate this clause. In June, new provisions in the Criminal Code imposed harsh prison sentences on those who support women by providing them with abortion care.
The amendments to abortion laws during the pandemic came about through a civic project submitted by a fundamentalist organisation. We organised protests, which was a slightly crazy thing to do, because how do you protest during a pandemic when you are not allowed to gather? That is why we got creative: we invented new forms of protest because we had to. We staged ‘queueing protests’, standing two metres apart in a queue outside a shop close to the parliament building, to comply with lockdown regulations, while holding signs and umbrellas. This happened in several cities, not just in the capital, Warsaw. As we were not allowed to walk freely, we also organised ‘car protests’. We interrupted traffic and blocked Warsaw’s main square for about an hour.
These protests were quite effective. The amendments did not proceed and are now ‘frozen’. They were sent to a parliamentary commission, but the commission is not working on them. They have been neither rejected nor approved. But this also means that they might come back suddenly at any point in the future, and we will have to deal with them again.
From the very beginning this government has been clear that it does not support women’s rights and does not care about violence against women. Since the government came into power, funding to centres that help women has been cut and these centres have had to resort to crowdfunding or are surviving on private donations, because they have no access to state funding anymore. However, some progress has also taken place, as with a recently passed law, which was proposed by a leftist party, that empowers police officers to issue an order to forbid perpetrators of violence from entering the household of the victim for 14 days. This has helped immediately separate victims from perpetrators.
On the other hand, over the past several months we have seen announcements from the authorities that they are thinking about pulling Poland out of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In the beginning we didn’t take it too seriously. But it is always like this: first they test the waters to see how far they can go, and if they don’t find too much resistance they start pushing forward. During the presidential campaign and election, the topic was not raised, but only a week afterwards it became an issue. Many serious developments, such as arrests of activists, took place right after the election.
Now the situation is becoming serious. Announcements have been made by several ministers and the president has approved the idea to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. There is also a lot of propaganda on state media to convince people that this Convention is about so-called ‘gender ideology’. However, surveys show that over 60 per cent of the population is against leaving the Convention compared to only 15 per cent who support the idea. Half of those who oppose leaving the Convention voted for the ruling party. It is weird that they are pushing this so far because it’s against the views of their own voters.
As someone who was at the forefront of the2016 women’s strike in Poland, how do you feel about the current situation?
We are so used to hearing bad news that we weren’t surprised with this latest announcement. The situation in Poland is such and so many bad things happen every day that you become immune to bad news.
During the pandemic everything has been highly political. Instead of focusing on taking care of people’s health, everything became politicised. The presidential election was supposed to be held in May, and there was a lot of discussion about whether it should be held; it was finally postponed to late June. The ruling party knew that it was losing popularity because the health system is not efficient enough and the minister of health himself made huge money by supplying masks and medical equipment. This is why the ruling party pushed to have the election as soon as possible, before it lost too many votes. And instead of taking care of our safety and lives, the ruling party focused on its own political agendas. The attempts to ban abortion were very upsetting and disappointing because you expect more responsibility from your government at such a critical time.
I knew people were tired of mobilising, so I was surprised to see so many come out to defend the Istanbul Convention, which became a national topic of discussion in the media and everywhere. A lot of positive energy has been created around this and is giving us the strength to try and stop it.
We have been protesting for five years now. Protest has its own dynamics: you have to feel the moment and decide how to react; sometimes you give it a try and it doesn’t work out. It’s always an experiment. But right now, we feel that there is real energy and a momentum we need to ride on. There is a lot of interest from foreign media, and this topic has become the focus of attention. This is slightly strange because every time we tried to do something on violence against women in the past, it was very hard to get people to mobilise on the streets. There is something about violence that makes it difficult to translate feelings into street action. While many people experience it or know somebody who has been a victim, they don’t like to react to it. Many times in the past we failed when organising things on the topic of violence, but this time people took it up. We might now have a chance to defend the right to a life free from violence and make this a problem for the government.
Do gender rights activists in Poland currently experience any restrictions on their right to organise, speak up and mobilise?
I am a writer and artist, and as a result of my activism I am cut off from state grants. There are no state institutions that want to work with me right now because if my name shows up on their list, it becomes a problem for them. You could also be arrested or be taken to court by a right-wing legal foundation such as Ordo Iuris. Of course, there is also hate speech: the government uses your name and your image for propaganda on state media, and you can also be attacked by trolls on social media. Police can hurt you, as happened to me at one protest in 2018. This situation came about gradually, but at this point there is a wide range of forms of repression that you can experience. For the time being, however, I haven’t heard of feminist activists facing physical attacks from civilians.
I am one of the activists who started taking direct action against the government, so there are a lot of things that I am being accused of. Ordo Iuris does not like me because I wrote a book exposing the international fundamentalist network that it is part of. I am on the list of their enemies, but so far, I have not been sued by them. They say they are working on their list of accusations against me, because there are so many. During our latest protest, members of Ordo Iuris approached a police officer and tried to convince him that I should be requested to show my identification. But the police in Warsaw know us, they know our faces, they knew that I had not done anything illegal during the protest and refused their request.
In which ways can civil society hold accountable an increasingly authoritarian government such as Poland’s, and what support from international civil society does it need to do so?
Regarding the Istanbul Convention, we are trying to convince the international community that European funds should be allocated bearing in mind the actual human rights compliance records of each member of the European Union (EU). A new instrument introduced in the EU established that funding should be linked to adherence to democratic principles and practices. We are trying to convince the Council of Europe, the source of the Istanbul Convention, to introduce similar measures towards the governments that are relinquishing their people’s rights. It’s all about linking funding to human rights compliance. Money is the only language governments will understand. Six Polish cities are currently not receiving European funds following their declaration of so-called ‘LGBTI-free zones’, which is considered an act against human rights. We would like to raise this question, together with Turkish women, who are facing a similar battle against their government’s initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. You cannot be destroying human rights, like Hungary and Russia are doing, and still be treated by the Council of Europe like anyone else, as a partner in the conversation. So, this is a new approach that we are trying to make people understand.
We want international civil society organisations to lobby local politicians so they become aware that the issues of human rights and funding need to be considered together. The Council of Europe also needs to understand this so we can set a precedent and in the future women here and in other countries will be protected. If we have an authoritarian government that does whatever it wants, even if citizens don’t agree, we need to have some protections from abroad. All we find in Poland is repression, so we need somebody from outside to be on our side and not leave us alone.
Poland: A Year On, Abortion Ruling Harms Women
Anniversary Marks Ongoing Assault on Women’s Rights, Rule of Law
Women, girls, and all pregnant people have faced extreme barriers to accessing legal abortions in the year since a Constitutional Tribunal ruling virtually banned legal abortion in Poland, 14 human rights organizations said today. Since the ruling, women human rights defenders have also faced an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment.
Poland’s authorities should end efforts to undermine reproductive rights and weaken protections from gender-based violence. They should commit to protecting women human rights defenders who have faced ongoing threats and attacks since the October 2020 decision. Escalating death threats since October 9 against Marta Lempart, co-founder of Ognopolski Strajk Kobiet (All-Poland Women’s Strike) and a target of repeated threats for leading demonstrations supporting legal abortion and women’s rights, led to her police protection during public appearances.
“The Constitutional Tribunal ruling is causing incalculable harm to women and girls – especially those who are poor, live in rural areas, or are marginalized,” said Urszula Grycuk, international advocacy coordinator at the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa) in Poland. “The dignity, freedom and health of pregnant people are compromised because their own government is denying them access to essential reproductive health care.”
The organizations are Abortion Support Network, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, CIVICUS, Federa, FOKUS, Human Rights Watch, International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Planned Parenthood Federation-European Network, MSI Reproductive Choices, Le Planning Familial, Riksförbundet för sexuell upplysning/The Swedish Association for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, and Strajk Kobiet/Women’s Strike.
Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, whose independence and legitimacy is profoundly eroded, is widely acknowledged as politically compromised. On October 22, 2020, it ruled that abortion on grounds of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” was unconstitutional. The government brought the case to the tribunal after parliament failed to adopt legislation with the same effect. The ruling came into force on January 27, 2021.
This eliminated one of the few legal grounds for abortion under Poland’s highly restrictive law. Previously, over 90 percent of the approximately 1,000 legal abortions annually in Poland were on these grounds. The ruling came as Covid-19 pandemic restrictions made travel for health care prohibitively difficult and costly. The ruling spurred the country’s largest public protests in decades, led by women human rights defenders.
Activists and women’s rights groups reported that the ruling had a significant chilling effect as people seeking abortions and medical professionals feared repercussions. Abortion Without Borders, which aids women in European countries where abortion is illegal or access is highly restricted, reported that 17,000 women in Poland contacted them in the six months after the ruling for help accessing abortion, and that they continue to receive about 800 calls a month.
Federa, a Polish reproductive health and rights organization, reported conducting approximately 8,100 consultations in the 11 months after the ruling, 3 times as many as during the same period in previous years. This included calls to its helpline and over 5,000 emails concerning access to abortion and other sexual and reproductive health services.
Since the Law and Justice party came to power in 2015, Poland’s government has repeatedly moved to further curb sexual and reproductive health and rights, including by supporting a 2016 draft bill for a total abortion ban that parliament rejected following mass public protest. The government also supported a draft bill, introduced by an ultra-conservative group, to essentially criminalize comprehensive sexuality education. The bill has been in committee since April 2020. These bills are “civic initiatives,” which require public signatures to be considered.
In September 2021, the same group introduced a new civic initiative “Stop Abortion” bill to parliament. It would consider abortion at any stage a homicide and would bring criminal penalties against women who have abortions, and anyone who assists them, with punishment of up to 25 years in prison. The bill is backed by Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, an ultra-conservative, anti-choice, and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) group.
Women’s rights organizations and parliament members of the opposition Lewica party are collecting signatures for a civic initiative bill, “Legal Abortion Without Compromise,” which would permit abortion without restriction as to reason up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. It would permit abortion after 12 weeks in cases of risk to the person’s mental or physical health, a non-viable pregnancy, or pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
Evidence consistently demonstrates that laws restricting or criminalizing abortion do not eliminate it, but rather drive people to seek abortion through means that may put their mental and physical health at risk and diminish their autonomy and dignity. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said that as part of the obligation to protect the right to life of pregnant people, states should not apply criminal sanctions against anyone undergoing abortion or medical service providers assisting them.
In July, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) announced that it will address complaints from Polish women who may be victims of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms due to the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling. Poland’s government has failed to effectively implement previous ECtHR judgments concerning access to lawful abortion despite repeated calls and a March judgmentby the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.
The Law and Justice government has also targeted women’s rights organizations and activists. Activists said that government rhetoric and media campaigns smearing them and their work foster misinformation and hate that can put their safety at risk. Several women’s rights defenders were detained or face what they describe as politically motivated criminal charges for actions during protests following the Constitutional Tribunal’s abortion ruling. Activists received multiple bomb and death threats in February and March for their support of reproductive rights but said that, in many cases, police minimized the security risks and either did not open investigations or failed to pursue them effectively. No one has been held accountable for these threats. Police launched investigations and arrested one man in connection with online death threats to Lempart ahead of her planned appearance at a protest on October 11, and are now providing her protection at public events.
The government has undermined efforts to combat gender-based violence, including by initiating Poland’s withdrawal from a landmark European convention on violence against women, the Istanbul Convention. The government referred the convention to the politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal for review due to its definition of “gender.” Campaigns against gender equality have been used to target women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights and those who support them.
“Extreme restrictions on abortion are part of a broader assault by Poland’s government on human rights, including women’s rights and LGBTI rights, and the rule of law,” said Marta Lempart, co-founder of Strajk Kobiet. “It should alarm all Europeans that this is happening in their own backyard, even as European governments claim to be leaders on women’s rights and democratic values.”
The anti-abortion ruling’s anniversary comes amid increasing tensions between Poland’s government and the European Union after an October 7 Constitutional Tribunal ruling rejecting the binding nature of EU law. It followed a series of EU Court of Justice rulings that the Polish government’s weakening of judicial independence breaches EU law. The European Commission said it “will not hesitate to make use of its powers” under EU treaties to ensure application of EU law and protect people’s rights.
Poland’s government should reverse restrictions on reproductive rights and ensure that these rights are upheld in accordance with international law, including the right to access safe abortion. It should cease attacks on women’s rights and women human rights defenders and end moves to undermine the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
The European Commission and EU member states should urgently address rule of law breaches and their impact on women’s human rights, including reproductive rights, in Poland. The European Commission should trigger legal infringement proceedings for Polish authorities’ use of a politically compromised Constitutional Tribunal to erode the rights of people in Poland and undermine democratic checks and balances, in blatant violation of the EU Treaties.
The Commission and EU member states should act to protect and support women’s rights defenders and organizations in Poland. Member states should actively support people in Poland seeking access to abortion.
The Commission should urgently implement the mechanism tying access to EU funds to respect for EU values and continue its commitment to tie EU Recovery Funds to rule of law guarantees. EU member states should advance and expand scrutiny under Article 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) by adopting specific recommendations or voting to determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values in Poland, as has been called foralso by European Parliament.
“Despite fear and repercussions, people in Poland are fighting every day to protect rights that everyone in the EU should be able to exercise freely, including access to safe abortion,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Women’s rights are on a precipice in Poland, and unless the European Commission and Council act to defend democratic values, more and more women and girls will suffer the consequences.”
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Poland, please visit:
For more information, please contact:
For Human Rights Watch, in London, Hillary Margolis (English): +1-917-385-4107 (US mobile) or +44 (0)7733-486-524 (UK mobile); or . Twitter: @hillarymargo
For Human Rights Watch, in Brussels, Philippe Dam: (French, English): +32-495-45-22-71 (mobile); or . Twitter: @philippe_dam
For Human Rights Watch, in Budapest, Lydia Gall (English, Swedish, Hungarian): +36-702-748-328 (mobile); or . Twitter: @LydsG
For Abortion Support Network (part of Abortion Without Borders), in London, Mara Clarke (English): +44 (0) 7913-353-530; or
For Amnesty International, Alison Abrahams: +32-483-680-812 or +44-20-7413-5566; or ; or . Twitter: @amnestypress
For the Center for Reproductive Rights, in New York, Geraldine Henrich-Koenis (English): +1-703-314-1137; or . Twitter: @ReproRights
For CIVICUS,in Johannesburg, Aarti Narsee: ; or . Twitter @ajnarsee
For FIDH, in Brussels, Elena Crespi (English, French, Italian, Spanish): +32-484-875-964. Twitter: @ecrespi_fidh
For FIDH, in Paris: Marc de Boni (French, English): +33-6-722-842-94. Twitter: @MarcdeBoni
For Federa, in Warsaw, Urszula Grycuk (Polish, English): .
For International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network,in Brussels, Irene Donadio (English, Italian): +32-491-071-93-90; or . Twitter: @ippfen
For the Polish Women’s Strike, in Warsaw, Anna Styrańczak: +48-881-718-904; or .
Civic space in Poland is rated as narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor
Poland: complete failure in implementing civic space recommendations
Statement at the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
UPR outcome adoption - Poland
Delivered byKinga Lozinska
Thank you, Mr President.
The Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) and CIVICUS welcome the government of Poland's engagement with the UPR process.
Since its last review, however, Poland has not implemented any of the recommendations relating to civic space and we are deeply troubled to see that Poland rejected 7 recommendations and only accepted 1 of the 11 recommendations it received during this cycle.
We are concerned by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s dismantling of judicial independence and the rule of law, which has been used as a tool to violate civic freedoms in Poland. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) advocating for reproductive justice are facing judicial harassment and intimidation. Recently, abortion rights activist, Justyna Wydrzyńska was found guilty of aiding an abortion and sentenced to 8 months community service. We are further alarmed by the repeated attempts to diminish media independence through restrictive legislation, government allies acquiring ownership of major media outlets and the filing of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against independent media.
As a result of these developments, civic space in Poland is currently classified as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of significant civic space restrictions.
Mr President, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) and CIVICUS call on the Government of Poland to take concrete steps to address these concerns, including by:
- Immediately and unconditionally drop charges against all human rights defenders and ensure that government officials and non-state actors perpetrating intimidation and harassment against WHRDs and LGBTQI+ defenders are effectively investigated.
- Refrain from further persecuting independent judges who uphold the rule of law and drop all criminal charges against them.
- Drop all SLAPPs against journalists and media outlets and refrain from further legal harassment against independent media
We thank you.
Civic space in Poland is rated as "Obstructed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Poland: concerns over intimidation, violence and detentions of peaceful protesters
Joint letter to:
Clement Voule, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Assembly and Association
Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Physical and Mental Health
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Palais Wilson, 52 Rue des Pâquis
1201 Geneva, Switzerland
Poland: Escalating threats to women activists
Investigate, Protect Rights Defenders, End Hateful Rhetoric
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