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HFHR Report: Rule by law replaced the rule of law. Threats to human rights in Poland, 2015-2019

The years 2015-2019 saw the greatest decline in human rights protection in Poland after 1989.

Despite the lack of a sufficient vote to amend the Constitution, the ruling majority introduced a number of changes to the state system, endangering the rule of law and the principle of the triple division of powers. With laws being rigged to achieve partisan political goals, the rule of law has been replaced by the rule by law, warns today’s report published by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

A comprehensive report

In the last four years, the Sejm has adopted more than 20 laws that have had a significant impact on the national human rights system. The report describes changes in the functioning of the justice system, independent institutions (such as the public media and the Ombudsman) and in the area of fundamental rights and freedoms (including the freedom of assembly, women’s rights, LGBTQI rights and the right to a fair trial). The report also presents a summary of the three-year controversy between Poland and the European Union.

“Over the last four years, we have seen – for the first time – the law being incessantly abused to pursue partisan political interests. This has translated into a permanent crisis of the rule of law and led to the deterioration of the entire human rights system in Poland”, notes Marcin Wolny, an author of the report.

Weaker protection of human rights

The main trends manifesting over the past four years have been the undermining of independent institutions (including the courts and prosecution service), disregard for binding judicial decisions and recommendations of international institutions and the weakening of the guarantees of human rights protection. The last four years have been a period of a systemic transformation of the state and the human rights protection system.

“Over the past four years, the Sejm has adopted more than 20 laws crucial for the protection of human rights. These changes have often been rushed and introduced without public consultation and despite concerns expressed by the legal professions, the Ombudsman or international organisations”, says Małgorzata Szuleka, another author of the report.

The changes were often introduced in an atmosphere of aggression directed towards institutions (e.g. the Ombudsman), professional groups (judges) or vulnerable groups (e.g. foreigners and LGBTQI persons). This aggression was frequently inspired by the public media, certain private broadcasters and politicians of the ruling majority. The most concerning were those situations where state authorities did not react or explicitly disregarded emerging cases of violence.

The state’s active involvement in the dismantling of the rule of law has led to a persistent dispute with the European Union and evoked a series of recommendations from international bodies. “The failure to implement these recommendations not only weakens Poland’s position as a leader of democratic changes in the CEE region but also exposes the Polish state to liability for violations of European Union laws or the European Convention on Human Rights”, reads the report.

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