Ms Przywara, thank you for giving this interview to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. We have had quite unsettling news coming from Poland in the last year and a half, particularly, regarding the Constitutional Tribunal and human rights in general. What developments in the situation do you see – as a representative of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and as a prominent figure of civil society?
The situation is becoming more complex. Since October 2015, new authorities who came to power after elections have been changing the whole political system of Poland. There is a battle against liberal democracy going on. The first step they made was reforming the Constitutional Tribunal. As the “Law and Justice“ Party does not have a constitutional majority, the authorities would not have been able to change numerous laws if the Constitutional Tribunal had operated in accordance with the Polish Constitution, for example, Media Law, Police Law, Property Law, combination of the positions of the Minister of Justice and the Prosecutor General, Anti-Terrorism Law, etc. Now the authorities are creating a Centre for Civil Society Develoment, changing the law on freedom of assembly – all this was only possible with the reformation of the Constitutional Tribunal. This process did not happen as fast as the “Law and Justice” Party were hoping – the struggle for the Constitutional Tribunal lasted 15 months, so in fact the Constitutional Tribunal’s decisions ceased to be independent only in 2017. As of today, the Tribunal is composed of four different groups of judges: Three of them have been elected to previously occupied places; three more have been legitimately elected, but the President did not take their oath; further three have worked as judges for several years, but the Prosecutor General declared them illegitimately elected and, hence, they are not entitled to meet any decisions; the rest have been elected in accordance with law and the President took their oath. Both the President of the Constitutional Tribunal has been elected with the law violation and in each group of judges, who make a decision, there is one of the so-called backup judges, each elected by the Parliament. Not so many decisions have been made by the Tribunal so far, but for all of us – human rights activists – this institution simply does not exist anymore. The executive branch began to take various actions to change or exclude the independence of both the courts and judges. The last general UN review is putting this process on hold, but no one knows for how long.
How does this affect human rights and freedoms in Poland? Negatively! The people now in power took advantage of the migration crisis in Europe during the elections. And the people’s attitude towards refugees and those claiming refugee status, migrants has very much deteriorated. Before the migration crisis, most Poles thought that the country should also receive refugees. It is understandable: Many Poles themselves are economic migrants within the European Union, for example, those who left for the UK. In the past, Poles often were refugees – and they were accepted by other countries. In Poland, we always understood people who came to us looking for safety. Now the attitude has changed. There is in fact no migration crisis in Poland: There are not much people, who would like to get a refugee status, and economic migrants in Poland come mostly from Ukraine. The attitude towards those has also deteriorated, but not much. Yet, politicians and members of the Polish government in their speeches make it look like there is a severe migration crisis in Poland, like these events threaten the country.
Can you say there is a declining interest of society and citizens to assert their rights? In the beginning, we saw thousands of people protesting on the streets of Warsaw, on the streets of other cities…
And they are still there! It is sad that situation in Poland is similar to the one in Hungary. The society is divided. There are people who support the government and believe that authorities do everything for the country’s best. And there is the second half who ask to stop and perceive what is happening as a threat to the protection of human rights and freedoms. Not all the laws passed by the authorities have been effective so far, but these laws are a powerful weapon of government that can be used at any time to reduce our rights and freedoms, change the political system in Poland, and turn down Separation of Powers into three branches – Executive, Legislative and Judicial. Many citizens took to the streets to fight for an independent Constitutional Tribunal. These same people also protested when the government made the first step to limit women’s rights by enacting the Anti-Abortion Law. The law had been tough enough before compared with other countries, but the government wants to make it even tougher. Now many people begin to understand where they need to strive for, and there are more various associations of professional groups that emerge. For example, the Congress of Judges was held last autumn, this year there will be a seminar congress for representatives of all legal professions.
Do you mean that there are positive tendencies in the society that might change the situation?
Yes, crisis is also a chance for people to build civic awareness, to feel more civic responsibility for what is happening in the country. Time will tell.
We are talking in Berlin, where a conference by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is being held. Right behind you, there is a map on which the participating countries are marked, as well as tendencies in the development of civil society. What challenges, in your opinion, is Europe, and in particular members of the Civil Society Forum, now facing?
Today we were discussing state of civil society with our colleagues from the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and Russia. We all were observing the events in France before the elections. One of the main challenges that we are facing is rise of nationalism, fear of others. The far-right movements are using the language and symbols that we agreed to give them, for example, such words as "patriotism" or phrases like "history tells us" and so on. I think there is much to do for us to restore the original meaning of these words, to show people that patriotism is not a fight against peaceful refugees, but actions that are beneficial for the country. We can feel – and it was discussed at the conference today, that there is lack of trust not only between people, but also between non-governmental organisations, within the society as a whole. If we build trust in the society and between us, then we will become stronger and more effective.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights is a member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Why is it important for your organisation and for you personally to take part in the Forum’s activities?
The need to establish the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum was obvious to us from the very beginning. After all, the first projects and programmes that we organised after the regime change in Poland in 1989 were not only related to human rights, but to education and also to the help for people from back then republics of the Soviet Union. We knew very well what totalitarianism was and how fresh the air was that came from democratic countries. And when we left the authoritarian system, we started to help our friends from Eastern Europe, so that they too could experience what it is like to live in a democratic country. After all, the security of both Europe and Poland is bound to the building of one common democratic society that shares the values of freedom and human rights.
The interview was recorded on 15 May 2017 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin, Germany.