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Rule of law, human rights and democracy: Civil society assessment of the legal and policy framework of Poland in the view of OSCE commitments

Poland has remained a member state of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) since its inception in 1975, having been one of the signatories of the Helsinki Agreement, which created OSCE’s predecessor, CSCE. The obligations arising out of this membership are essential for the system of human rights protection in Poland and, as such, their implementation is vigilantly monitored by domestic civil society organisations.

Over the past 46 years, the socio-political and economic situation in Poland has changed dramatically, with two clearly visible pivotal moments. First, as a result of partially free elections of 1989, the country has transitioned from a communist state into a democracy, serving as an example of a successful and peaceful transformation for the entire CEE region. Second, with the shift of power in late 2015, the process of strengthening liberal democratic values and the rule of law has been inhibited, whereas Poland started to drift towards non-liberal democracies, or even autocracies, in terms of the rule of law acceptance, the respect for human rights and fostering democratic processes.

The report “Rule of law, human rights and democracy: Civil society assessment of the legal and policy framework of Poland in the view of OSCE commitments” prepared by Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights focuses on the three areas mentioned above: the rule of law, human rights and democratic processes. Given the upcoming Polish presidency in the OSCE, as well as taking into consideration the fact that the most significant regress can be observed in these fields since the elections in October 2015, the report concentrates on the developments that occurred in the last 6 years. It consists of three main thematic parts.

As regards the first part, pertaining to the rule of law, it is fundamental to observe that in the last 6 years twenty pieces of legislation were adopted that interfered into the judiciary. The adopted changes have virtually dismantled the guarantees for judicial independence, resulting in a situation where such independence relies only on individual judges’ moral integrity. There has been also a significant rise in the number of reprisals directed at judges and prosecutors. As a result of the legal and policy changes, Poland remains in constant conflict with the European Union and indicates no political will to implement judgements of the Court of Justice of the European Union related to the judiciary.

The second part of the report describes the human rights situation in Poland in the last years. In particular, this part tackles the matter of limiting the rights of minorities and stigmatising them (on the example of the LGBTI community), as well as addresses the problem of reproductive rights and gender-based violence. Moreover, as the number of attacks on journalists in Poland grows and the society is polarised as never before, this part also indicates threats to the freedom of information.

Lastly, the third part concerns democratic processes. In the last 6 years, a profound decline in standards of legislative process could be observed, which has a direct bearing on the quality of law adopted by the Parliament. Another democratic process affected negatively within this period was the electoral procedure, with the most notable example of cancelled presidential elections of 2020. In addition, the process of shrinking of the civic space has been also present in Poland since 2015. All of these issues taken together beg the question if Poland remains to meet the criteria of a strong democracy, and consequently – whether it guarantees the implementation of commitments of an OSCE member.

The authors of the report are pleased to present it a month prior to Poland’s taking on the responsibility of the presidency in the OSCE in the hope of contributing to a critical reflection concerning the situation in Poland as of the end of November 2021. We firmly believe that it will help to initiate changes aimed at repairing the consequences of the ongoing crisis.