People protest against the ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that imposes a near-total ban on abortion, in Wroclaw, Poland October 26, 2020

Women’s Strike Protests in Poland

By Shiva Ivaturi image from uk.reuters.com

Corruption of Political Institutions 

Poland’s nationalist, far-right Law and Justice (PiS) party has been the dominant party in the country since winning the majority of seats in the lower house (235 out of 460 seats) and upper house (61 out of 100 seats) in 2015 parliamentary elections. 

Elections and political parties often face tumultuous cycles. Yet political change does not substantiate action to reduce the power of a country’s basic institutions of justice that are meant to keep all political agendas from crossing irrevocably defined ethical boundaries. After coming into power, the PiS terminated the terms of three constitutional judges belonging to an opposition party and nominated three judges to represent the PiS, a move that ignored the timeframes of their terms of office (Tomczak, 2020). Legal experts across the world deemed the change to the Constitutional Tribunal as an illegal, unwarranted attack on judicial independence that established a link between the most powerful independent court and the ruling party of parliament (BBC, 2016). With a presupposition of corruption overshadowing future rulings made by the Constitutional Tribunal, the rights and freedoms of Polish citizens would be inevitably modified as well (Kobyliński, 2016). 

The party’s propaganda and attempts to delegitimize the human rights of sexual and gender minorities have only continued in recent years, with the Law and Justice party winning the vast majority of local elections in 2018 and maintaining power in the lower house of parliament during 2019 parliamentary elections (Beswick and Abellan-Matamoros, 2019). 

Amendments to the electoral code of Poland in 2018 signed by President Duda changed the framework of the National Electoral Commission (PKW). Previously, all nine members of the commission were appointed by courts, although the reform allowed seven out of the nine members to be chosen by parliament, perpetuating biased influence of the ruling party throughout the electoral process (Freedom House, 2020). 

Observers of the 2019 parliamentary elections from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that although the elections were generally conducted in a transparent and fair manner, the effect of judicial reforms and state sponsored propaganda through public broadcaster channels reduced the ability of voters to make an informed, impartial choice or to lodge election related complaints without undue influence from government authorities (Freedom House, 2020).

Ruling of the Constitutional Court 

With the Law and Justice (PiS) party having exerted firm control in the past of Poland’s institutions and continuing to do so for the foreseeable future, the quality of life and impact on sexual and gender minorities has become a human rights cataclysm that cannot be ignored for any longer. With the most powerful institutions in the country falling in line to the ruling party, political agendas became commandments that all citizens were subjugated to, irrespective of whether it deprived them of basic human rights they had previously enjoyed. 

Abortion restrictions had previously severely limited the rights of women in Poland, only allowed if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life was in danger, or if there were fatal fetal abormalities (Gessen, 2020). However on the 22nd October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal, tied to the political agenda of the PiS party, held unconstitutional the provision of allowing an abortion should there be fatal fetal abormalities. The tribunal’s justification relied on defining abortion to be permissible only in instances of “absolute necessity”, a vague term seemingly allowing the court to propogate the ideas of the PiS without acknowledging or protecting the rights of pregnant mothers. Notably, the constitutional rights of women were hardly mentioned in the judgement, including but not limited to: guarantee of human dignity, the right to freedom, the right to life, the prohibition of torture and degrading treatment, the right to privacy, the protection of health, and the special protection of mothers before and after birth (Krajewska, 2020). 

Emergence of Women’s Strike Protests 

Following the ruling on 22 October 2020, activists mobilized across the nation to call for a change to the eroding, precarious status of reproductive rights in Poland. The umbrella term for these protests were colloquially referred to as the Women’s Strike, although since its inception the protests have come to encompass a wide variety of human rights issues and call attention to socioeconomic disparities (Gessen, 2020). 

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression, life, liberty, and security of the person to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments and/or punishments are provisioned in human rights treaties to which Poland is a party (UN General Assembly, 1966). However, Amnesty International has documented multiple instances of police brutality against peaceful protesters. 

On 9 November 2020, activist Gabriela Lazarek was violently arrested while protesting peacefully in front of the Ministry of Education (Bednarek, 2020). She faces charges of unlawfully influencing by force or threat of the actions of authorities, punishable by up to three years in prison (Code of Criminal Procedure, 1997). Amnesty International holds that these

charges are unjustified. On 10 November, activist Katarzyna Augustynek was arrested in Warsaw while she was protesting peacefully (TVN24, 2020). Video footage shows her talking to three police officers when a fourth officer approaches and demands to see proof of identification, to which she refuses as police do not have a legal basis for conducting an identification check. Katarzyna was forcibly arrested and charged on the basis of a violation of the physical integrity of an officer on duty, punishable by up to three years in prison (Code of Criminal Procedure, 1997). Amnesty International holds that these charges are unjustified. On 11 November, multiple instances of excessive use of force by police on protesters were documented. On 18 November 2020, police kettled protesters and used pepper spray directly in their faces. 

Concerns that the police will continue to resort to excessive use of force and criminalization of peaceful protesters are of the utmost importance during a time where Polish authorities appear to be turning a blind eye to citizens who oppose the deprivation of reproductive rights and social mobility. In fact, Polish authorities appear to be taking punitive actions against the constituents to which they are obligated to represent. 

What Can You Do? 

Broad actions taken to consolidate power in governments is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the deprivation of basic reproductive rights and those of sexual and gender minorities through the corruption of a country’s institutions of justice. In these tumultuous times, we must ask ourselves whether we are willing to stay uninformed and take no action against these sorts of horrific phenomena that continue perpetuating inequalities at every level of society, or whether we will call for change. 

With the onset of a global pandemic, traditional forms of social mobilization have been restricted in order to limit the transmission of COVID-19. Fortunately, activism has increasingly taken advantage of digital channels. Amnesty International at the University of Toronto encourages you to stay informed on the actions of Polish authorities particularly as it relates to the treatment of protestors and contribute to change through letter writing campaigns, petitions, and other forms of communication to raise awareness among peers. Please consider making a financial contribution if you are able to do so to organizations including but not limited to: Amnesty International, Stonewall Poland, and Human Rights Watch!

References

1. “Poland’s Constitutional Court Clashes with New Government.” BBC News, BBC, 9 Mar. 2016, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35766482. 

2. Kobyliński, Konrad. “The Polish Constitutional Court from an Attitudinal and Institutional Perspective Before and After the Constitutional Crisis of 2015–2016.” Wroclaw Review of Law, Administration & Economics, vol. 6, no. 2, 2016, pp. 94–107., doi:10.1515/wrlae-2018-0006. 

3. Tomczak, Malgorzata. “Poland’s Government Creates Constitutional Crisis It Will Find Hard to Resolve.” Balkan Insight, 30 Nov. 2020, 

balkaninsight.com/2020/11/30/polands-government-creates-constitutional-crisis-it-will-fi nd-hard-to-resolve/. 

4. Kurasinska, Lidia. “This New Political Party in Poland Wants to ‘Re-Christianise’ Europe.” OpenDemocracy, 27 Feb. 2019, 

www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/new-party-poland-aims-re-christianise-europe/. 5. “Poland.” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/country/poland/freedom-world/2020. 6. Gessen, Masha, et al. “The Abortion Protests in Poland Are Starting to Feel Like a Revolution.” The New Yorker, 17 Nov. 2020, 

www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-abortion-protests-in-poland-are-starting-t o-feel-like-a-revolution. 

7. Beswick, Emma, and Cristina Abellan-Matamoros. “Poland Election: Ruling PiS Win Narrow Majority – Final Results.” Euronews, 15 Oct. 2019, 

www.euronews.com/2019/10/13/poland-head-to-the-polls-with-conservative-ruling-law-j ustice-party-in-the-lead. 

8. UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999, p. 171, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3aa0.html 

9. Bednarek, Michalina. “Aktywistka Gabriela Lazarek Spędziła Noc ‘Na Dołku’. Wyszła z Poważnymi Zarzutami.” Wyborcza.pl, 11 Nov. 2020, 

katowice.wyborcza.pl/katowice/7,35063,26502384,aktywistka-gabriela-lazarek-spedzila noc-na-dolku-i-wyszla.html?disableRedirects=true. 

10. The Code of Criminal Procedure of Poland (Act of 6 June 1997). 1997. 11. “Polska Babcia Zatrzymana. Poseł Szczerba: Usłyszała Zarzut Zaatakowania Policjantów Tęczową Torbą.” TVN24, TVN24, 30 Nov. 2020, 

tvn24.pl/polska/polska-babcia-katarzyna-augustynek-zatrzymana-przez-policje-w-sobote w-czasie-protestu–strajk-kobiet-4764431.

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