Solidarity counts the most. Human rights after Adam Bodnar
Poland of 2020 openly undermined the present concept of human rights protection on an unprecedented scale. The same year saw an awakening of social awareness and mass mobilization in defense of human rights. What will come next?
We know the illusoriness of lofty declarations of respect for human rights as a permanent state in confrontation with “realpolitik.” However, never before have we seen such an open undermining of the very foundations on which international systems of human rights protection are based.
Never before has this reality been so meekly accepted by the public. Perhaps one of the causes of this submissiveness hides in the evident takeover of the human rights discourse by populists and circles that understand human rights in a manner completely opposite to their true essence.
A telling example is the issue of freedom of speech and its guaranteed protection in the context of promoting content that is xenophobic, infringing on the LGBTQ+ people’s dignity, or offend people with particular social and political views. Under the guise of protecting the freedom of speech of a “discriminated minority with conservative views” or even protecting the “majority rights,” hate speech gains the status of an equal type of utterance in the public space.
In such a reversed narrative, it is no longer those who deny nonheteronormative people fundamental rights and freedoms that are treated as violators of human rights – they cast themselves as victims of such violations instead. Vulgar jokes about victims of the Holocaust broadcast on public television are now but a “commentary” to the current political events.
A perversion of justice
It seems that Poland of 2020 experienced a long time coming and rather successful change in the positioning, understanding, and observance of human rights in social and legal dimensions. On the one hand, we witnessed the radically dangerous tendency to undermine the very legitimacy of the legal protection of human rights and freedoms, namely the campaign to denigrate – on legal and purely psychological levels – the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Recently, the Ordo Iuris Foundation submitted a bill to denounce the Istanbul Convention signed by 150 thousand people.
In 2020, we witnessed violations of basic human rights and freedoms committed with a perversion of justice, phasing out of the constitutional court that protects civil rights, depriving us of the right to a fair trial understood as an impartial and independent judiciary, and an unprecedented attack on the dignity and other fundamental rights of LGBTQ+ persons. All this was accompanied by the helplessness of international human rights monitoring bodies and the inaction of most of the Polish population.
On the other hand, the state of affairs simultaneously led to an unprecedented awakening of public awareness about the role of the guarantees of human rights protection and a mass mobilization in their defense.
However, the question remains open whether the process of relativizing and undermining the essence of human rights has not already penetrated Polish social tissue so deeply that even mass protests and movements formed around them will be unable to change the course of those threatening tendencies without reaching a critical mass.
Seeking means of defense
Human rights defenders face an exceptionally daunting task: to find effective methods to stop the negative phenomena, to relentlessly activate social forces to defend human rights, while continuing to fight for the implementation of particular rights and freedoms.
One of the methods may consist of pointing out all half-truths and attempts at hijacking the concept of human rights by its enemies, systematically reminding in public space what legal protection against hate speech is and what it is not. Another method is to not give up the fight for the implementation of a standard of protection of a particular right or freedom that exceeds the established minimum.
Another necessary matter is for us to introduce human rights education as early as possible.
However, all this requires reflection, coordination, and space to undertake action, ensure the cooperation of various actors, and mobilize also on the international level. Moreover, it requires financial support, which is a particularly troublesome measure given the systemic exclusion of human rights NGOs from the ability to obtain funds.
At no time or place can even the noblest and most courageous civic initiatives fully counterbalance actions of the state and its institutions that do not comply with standards of human rights protection. After all, it is the state that exercises power, concludes or denounces acts of international law, and implements (or not) their provisions. Finally, it is the state that mostly shapes social policy, education, international relations – all of which are vital for human rights in every country.
In such a situation, one of the key roles plays the social responsibility of lawyers who regardless of their specialization, should defend constitutional human rights and freedoms, and those deriving from treaties under international law. Lawyers should uphold civil society, support victims of human rights violations, and relentlessly remind us about the key role of guarantees enshrined in law. The Free Courts initiative can certainly be called a model for such an approach in Poland.
How to understand human rights
The imminent departure of Adam Bodnar (one of Wiktor Osiatyński’s disciples) from the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights will constitute a defining and critical moment for the protection of human rights in Poland. Alongside Bodnar will leave an understanding of human rights that we associate with him, which is symptomatic of current reality. It is a reality different from the one during overt oppression – yet somehow similar.
In The Power of the Powerless, Václav Havel writes about a society under dictatorship and oppression as composed of “interconnected vessels,” about the interdependence of attitudes, about the potential of civic courage of an individual, which will ultimately translate into fundamental systemic changes. Today, in addition to various methods of defending human rights, we actually require the same thing: civic courage. Supported by the steadfastness of courts and the active work of international institutions, civic courage may be capable of upholding the status of human rights established over the past decades, and consequently protect each and every one of us.
Solidarity counts the most
We do not know whether the idea of civic panels promoted by Adam Bodnar will come to fruition. But it remains the best solution in times when some negate elementary human rights and values. One of such panels should be devoted to a general reflection on human rights. Together, we may reflect on what human rights mean to us, how some try to take human rights away from us, and how to make human rights a foundation resistant to attacks of populists.
Human rights lawyers should carefully listen to the conclusions of such a debate and propose appropriate legal changes. In turn, this joint effort may well become the catalyst for rebuilding the value behind every system of human rights protection: human solidarity. In Poland, it is solidarity written both with lower- and uppercase “S.”
Dr. Aleksandra Gliszczyńska-Grabias is Assistant Professor in the Poznań Human Rights Center of the Institute of Law Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences