European human rights officials have expressed serious concern over legal amendments passed last week in the Polish Sejm that could undermine the right to freedom of assembly if they become law.
Even inside Poland, the country’s ombudsman and human rights campaigners have criticised the bill, saying it will undermine Poles’ right to freedom of assembly by making it much harder to stage counter-demonstrations to rallies sponsored by the state or the church.
Lawmakers of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) approved the bill on its first reading, part of a wave of legislation the government says aims to strengthen traditional Catholic and national values.
The bill, which still has to clear a few hurdles before becoming law, would also transfer to government officials many powers now enjoyed by local governments on deciding whether to allow a public assembly to go ahead.
Urging the Polish parliament to reconsider amendments to the law governing public assemblies, Michael Georg Link, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Polish authorities to allow more time for consultation with civil society and other groups that will be affected by the changes.
“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, and should undergo extensive consultations with civil society and other key stakeholders before being adopted.”
“These amendments should not be adopted as such, as they would restrict unnecessarily and in a disproportionate way the possibility for a large part of the population to enjoy their human right to freedom of assembly, in disregard of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights” Commissioner Muižnieks said.
They highlighted, in particular, that the amendments give priority to gatherings organized by public authorities, churches and religious organizations, and to so-called “recurrent assemblies” – those that take place on a regular basis – to the possible detriment of the right of individuals and other groups to organize assemblies including to protest in relation to current public issues.
The amendments were passed in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, last Wednesday, and will be subject to debate in the Polish Senate this week.
The bill would explicitly ban any assemblies from taking place at the same time and place as those organized by the authorities or churches.
It would also introduce ‘cyclical’ rallies – a special designation to be granted by a government official to repetitive rallies aimed at celebrating “especially … important events for Poland’s history”.
Organizers of such ‘cyclical’ rallies would have priority in choosing the place and time over other planned gatherings and local authorities would be obliged to ban any non-‘cyclical’ protests in case of an overlap.
“If this bill enters into law, it will significantly limit the possibility of organizing counter-demonstrations and spontaneous rallies,” the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights said in a statement.
Under current rules, a local authority gives precedence to the organization that files the first request to stage a rally or demonstration, irrespective of the aims of the gathering.
PiS lawmakers defended the new bill, saying it protected citizens’ right to protest.