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Human Rights in Poland


The democratisation of political and public life which followed the collapse of the old system in 1989 allowed Poland to adopt a completely new set of international regulations for the protection of human rights.

These changes led to the ratification of many agreements and the adoption of international monitoring procedures. As the democratic system in Poland stabilised, and the rule of law and respect for human rights became one of the basic guidelines in public life, these developments constituted an important step towards Poland's membership of the Council of Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty and the European Union.

Poland as a Contributor to the Final Act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe
The idea of organising the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (as of 1995 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) originated in the 1960s, as an attempt to counterbalance and limit the military and political rivalry between the countries of the Warsaw Pact and the North Atlantic Treaty. Poland was one of the initiators of this meeting. On December 14th, 1964, at the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Adam Rapacki, put forward a proposition to summon a European conference for security and cooperation. The Final Act of the Conference, signed in 1975, initiated the scheme of cooperation between countries "from Vancouver to Vladivostok". Involvement in the implementation of this Act and active participation in the CSCE forum are fundamental objectives of Polish foreign policy.

The Early Stages in the Development of Civic Organisations
Poland's adoption of the Final Act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe prompted the establishment of Polish domestic organisations and movements for the protection of human rights, which originally operated on a clandestine basis.
KOR, the Workers' Defence Committee, was founded as a reaction against the repressive measures used by the Communist government against demonstrators in June 1976. Its principal objective was to provide legal and financial support to victims of the repressive measures. After their release in 1977, KOR developed into the Movement for Social Self-Defence. Another opposition group was ROPCiO, the Movement for the Protection of Human and Civil Rights, which operated in 1977-1981. Its members believed that their aims could be achieved only if the political system was changed, a civic state created, and Poland liberated from Soviet influence. Another organisation campaigning for human rights was the Helsinki Committee in Poland, which, since its foundation in 1982, has been monitoring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the international agreements and the CSCE documents which Poland signed.

The deterioration of the political and economic situation in Poland in the late 1970s led to the foundation of free trade unions by the underground opposition. Following the Gdańsk Shipyard strike in 1980 Solidarity, the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union, was recognised by the government and officially registered. Solidarity turned into a mass movement with ten million members. The introduction of Martial Law in Poland in December 1981 brought the (by then) overt activities of these citizens' and workers' organisations to an abrupt halt, forcing them to continue their efforts for the protection of human rights as an underground activity. International recognition for the democratic opposition movement in Poland was expressed when Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity leader and later President of the Republic of Poland, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
The Catholic Church has played an important role in protecting human rights in Poland. One of the Church organisations engaged in this kind of work under Martial Law was Cardinal Wyszyński's aid committee set up to provide assistance to political internees and their families. Many celebrities worked in it as volunteers.

The Constitution of the Republic of Poland: a basis for human and civil rights and freedoms
A now democratic Poland guarantees its citizens respect for human and civil rights. They are guaranteed by law, primarily in the 1997 Constitution, which says that the inborn and irrevocable dignity of man constitutes the source of his freedom and of his rights as an individual and a citizen. These may not be violated, and it is the duty of public authorities to respect and protect these rights (Article 30). The Constitution of the Republic of Poland guarantees its citizens belonging to ethnic minorities freedom to maintain and develop their own language, preserve their customs and traditions and develop their own culture (Article 35).

State Bodies Supervising the Observation of Human Rights
Various projects have been initiated since then to build a civic society. The most important are the legislative acts undertaken by the authorities and official institutions to protect human and civil rights.

The Polish Parliament is very sensitive to issues connected with the protection of human rights. This is reflected in its actions. The powers of the Sejm Committee for Justice and Human Rights include issues relating to respect of the law and the rule of law and human rights. The Sejm, with the approval of the Senate, established the Office of the Spokesman for Civil Rights - a constitutional body which monitors the protection of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and other normative acts. The Commissioner for the Protection of Civil Rights has a wide range of powers at his disposal. This provides him with the means to help individual citizens whose rights have been infringed in any way.
The Constitutional Tribunal monitors Poland's legislation through its formative stages, verifying the conformity of Polish acts of law and regulations and all the international agreements ratified by Poland with the Constitution. It is also the body to which anyone whose rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution have been infringed (Article 79) may submit a complaint. Independent and sovereign courts guarantee respect of human and civil rights.

Non-Governmental Organisations
1989 was a turning point for all non-government organisations. A Polish branch of Amnesty International was founded, which meant that Poland joined the world movement that operates on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, an independent institute for research and education, was established in the same year. This Foundation is now one of the most experienced and professional non-governmental organisations in Europe concerned with human rights.

International Actions
As a founding member of the United Nations Organisation, Poland ratified most of the international agreements concerning the protection of human rights before 1989. However, it was only after democracy was restored in Poland that the Polish authorities came to view these rights not just as an international issue. Poland ratified the International Pact of Civil and Political Rights and the International Pact of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which are part of the United Nations system of Human Rights Pacts. Among the human rights conventions adopted by the UN two were accomplished on the initiative of Poland. These were the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The fact that these conventions were accepted by the international community is recognised as a success for Polish diplomacy.

In 2002 Poland's representative presided for the second time over the United Nations Organisation Commission for Human Rights (the first time was in 1972) - evidence of the recognition of Poland's active involvement and contribution to the protection of human rights in the last decade. In 2006 the Commission was replaced with the United Nations Human Rights Council. The 2013 President of the UN Human Rights Council was ambassador Remigiusz Henczel, Permanent Representative of Poland to the UN Office in Geneva.

The most advanced system of standards of human rights and their protection is the one established by the Council of Europe. Poland joined this organisation in 1991 having fulfilled its three statutory requirements: the introduction of a system of representative and pluralist democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights and freedoms. On its official admission to the Council of Europe Poland adopted the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and then submitted a declaration of its recognition of the powers of the European Commission of Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. These actions meant that Poland accepted the full system of conventions and judgements of the European Commission of Human Rights and Court of Human Rights, with the high standards they had developed over the years. Poland also joined the European Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as well as the European Social Charter.
The ratification of the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms provided Polish citizens with a right to submit individual complaints to the European Court of Human Rights.
Poland is a member of many regional and sub-regional human rights organisations. As a member of OSCE/CSCE it endorsed all the documents relating to human rights, on the principles of representative democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Since 1991 Poland has been an active member of the Central European Initiative, and involved in the projects conducted by its working group relating to ethnic minorities issues. Poland has signed the CEI instrument of 1994 on the protection of ethnic minorities, and participates very actively in a working group for the support of democratic institutions founded by the Council of the Baltic Sea States. In 1994 the office of Curator of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights was established, including the Rights of Ethnic Minorities.

Poland's involvement in the International Labour Organisation has brought about its ratification of all the conventions of the hardcore of human rights protection, including the Convention on the Freedom of Association (concerning trade unions and protection of trade union rights), the Convention on the Abolition of Slavery (and forced work) and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention.
Poland has ratified one of UNESCO's fundamental conventions on the protection of human rights - the Convention Against Discrimination In Education.

Poland's Contribution to the Resolution of the Balkan Conflict
In 1992-1995 Mr. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland's first non-Communist prime minister in post-war history, was appointed Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission in Bosnia. His reports revealed the tragic truth about the fate of civilians whose rights were not respected during the Balkan war. In 1995 - after the brutal suppression of Srebrenica - he tendered his resignation, refusing to be party to "an illusory process of defending human rights". The fact that he was a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize testifies to the recognition Mr. Mazowiecki's work received.
From 2000 Mr. Marek Antoni Nowicki has held the post of International Spokesman for Human Rights in Kosovo. He is one of the most important representatives of the international community concerned with stabilisation in this region, and the most important institution for human rights. He is a co-founder of the Helsinki Committee in Poland and a former member of the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasburg (until its dissolution in October 1999). His work in Kosovo has concentrated on the protection of the human rights and freedoms of all of the inhabitants.

Culture in the Service of Human Rights
In December 2001 in Warsaw the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights in cooperation with the Centre for Contemporary Art, Zamek Ujazdowski, and the New Cinema Foundation, organised the first edition of the International Festival of films dealing with human rights called Watch Docs. It takes place every year. The film shows are accompanied by numerous discussions. The Festival is addressed not only to people working in non-governmental organisations dealing with the protection of human rights, but also to the public at large, especially young people.

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Gdańsk Shipyard, strike, August 1980. Signing the August Agreements by the Lech Wałęsa. Communist Deputy Prime Minister, Mieczysław Jagielski, is sitting next to Wałęsa. Foto Erazm Ciołek.

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Warsaw, 24th September 1980. Lech Wałęsa beign carried by people after committing an application for registration of Solidarity. PAP/PAI/Jan Morek.

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Kraków, Nowa Huta, 13th October 1982. Demonstrators with a Polish flag. Fot. Stanisław Markowski / KARTA

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Oslo, Norway, 10th December 1983. Lech Wałęsa's wife, Danuta, is accepting a Nobel Peace Prize in his name. Wałęsa wasn't able to come to Oslo, because the communist goverment of Poland refused to grant him a passport. Fot. Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) w Warszawie

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Warsaw, Dzierżyński's Square (now: Bankowy Square), 17th November 1989. Removing a statue of Felix Dzierżyński. Fot. Janusz Fila / FORUM