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7 December 2016

Polish Parliament approves restrictive amendments to the Law on Assemblies

On 2 December 2016, the Polish Parliament adopted a controversial bill which restrictively amends the national Law on Assemblies and allows the government to give priority – when two assemblies are scheduled for the same day – to regularly occuring, ‘cyclical assemblies’, and those considered historically important or nationally significant. Under the previous regulations, the government gave priority to organisers that file their request first, irrespective of the aim of the planned assembly. The Polish human rights community argues that with these amendments, public gatherings organised by the authorities and religious groups may be prioritised over those of organisations that are critical of the government or the church. 

Despite criticism by Poland’s Human Rights Ombudsman and civil society organisations,  224 deputies of the Polish Parliament (Sejm) voted in favour of the bill, with 196 against and 14 abstaining. The amended law will come into force when signed by the President. On 30 November 2016, the Sejm approved the amended bill in its first reading.

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Nils Muižnieks, and Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Mr Nmichael Georg Link, stated that the enforcement of the amended law may significantly affect the enjoyment of human rights in Poland.

“The freedom of peaceful assembly is protected, indeed guaranteed, by United Nations, Council of Europe, and OSCE commitments and legal standards,” said ODIHR Director Link. “Given the implications of these amendments for the right of peaceful assembly, which must be guaranteed and promoted, it is vital that legislation that could limit this right should not be adopted too hastily.” The Commissioner urged Polish authorities to hold further consultations with civil society and other key stakeholders for the improvement of the legislation in order to bring it in line with democratic principles and international human rights law.

The amendments on the Law on Assemblies follow mass protests which forced the Government to abandon plans to restrict sexual and reproductive rights in September 2016.

In October 2016, during its review of the human rights situation in Poland, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed its deep concern at the deterioration of conditions for the respect of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, protection of the rights of minorities, gender and reproductive rights, and freedom of expression.

In November 2016, the Polish Prime Minister, Ms Beata Szydło, introduced a bill to the Sejm, proposing the creation of a new department, called the National Center for Civil Society. This department would manage and control state funding of Polish non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Beata Szydło and the Polish Conservative Law and Justice Party justified the establishment of the department, stating the necessity to “bring order to the whole sphere of NGOs” and balance the distribution of state funding amongst conservative and liberal NGOs. However, prominent NGOs in Poland, such as the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Polish Society of Anti-Discrimination Law, the Stefan Batory Foundation, as well as the European Economic and Social Committee, argue that the centralisation of state funding for NGOs could be used as a means to apply pressure against NGOs critical of the state’s compliance with democratic principles and international human rights standards.

Front Line Defenders is concerned by the restrictive legislative initiatives which it believes could significantly hamper conditions for the legitimate work of human rights defenders and civil society organisations in Poland. Front Line Defenders calls upon the authorities of Poland to uphold their obligations to protect the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression in accordance with Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Front Line Defenders also calls on the Polish authorities to guarantee that in all circumstances human rights organisations are able to carry out their activities without fear of reprisal.