Storm Gathers Over the Office of Poland's Human Rights Commissioner

It is not the first time when the critique of right-wing groups is directed against Poland's commissioner for human rights, who also faces a shrinking budget and mounting pressure from the government.
This time the reason was the ombudsman's intervention in the case of LGBT activists denied service by a printer who disagreed with their lifestyle.

It is the second call for the dismissal of Dr. Adam Bodnar, who was appointed Poland's commissioner for human rights — the country's national ombudsman — in September 2015. Apart from escalating criticism towards him, the position of his office has recently been undermined by several decisions and regulations.

'Freezing effect'

Soon after the new term of Parliament began in December 2015, a new act significantly limiting the immunity of the ombudsman was created. Under the act, implemented in the beginning of June 2016, the minister of justice, who is also the country's general prosecutor, could remove the ombudsman's immunity through a procedure related to a criminal investigation.

Another way the ombudsman's immunity may be removed under the act is when a private plaintiff makes a claim to bring the ombudsman to court. Under the Polish Criminal Code, private claims can be made for various reasons, such as defamation.

During the legislative process, the Polish Bar Council (Naczelna Rada Adwokacka, NRA) expressed their doubts regarding the new regulations, stressing that "such subjects like the commissioner for human rights […] due to their constitutional status and regulated duties of protecting the rights and liberties of a person and a citizen, as well as their supervisory role towards legislative and executive powers, should be granted a broader immunity than the draft, as well as present regulations, proposes. The laws that limit those subjects’ freedom in the area of their expertise can lead to a certain 'freezing effect' on their activities related to guarding and supervising.”

Another critical opinion was issued by the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Low budget

Another step towards weakening the position of the commissioner for human rights was the decision made by the Public Finance Commission in January 2016. The commission did not grant the office of the ombudsman the budget that it sought and carefully justified.

In 2015, the ombudsman's budget was over 9.5 million euros (38 million Polish złoty). In 2016, the ombudsman's office applied for a bigger amount — 11 million euros.

The budget for Dr. Bodnar's office faces significant cuts, threatening his ability to fully investigate human rights issues in Poland.  (Image: Senat RP)

The amount was to cover the cost of renovating the headquarters and the execution of the new activities that were commissioned by the office in recent years, such as visiting detention centers as part of National Prevention Mechanism, controlling the rules of equal treatment, monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the rights of the disabled, monitoring wrong behavior of the police and other forces.

Yet, after the adoption of the amendments of parliamentary majority, the amount was reduced by 2.5 million euro (PLN 10 million) — a reduction of over 20 percent.

The ombudsman warns that "reducing the budget of the office in 2016 would result in limiting the range of visits to detention centers – a range that right now is regarded negatively by international bodies."

First call for dismissal

In April 2016, the far-right, nationalist organization National Radical Camp (ONR) organized its 82nd anniversary celebration. In Białystok, northeast Poland, there was a march that ended with a concert next to dormitories where both Polish and international students live. The International Exchange Office at Białystok University of Technology warned foreign Erasmus students about the participants and their celebration and advised all students to stay in their rooms that day.

The far-right ONR has called for Dr. Bodnar's dismissal as the national ombudsman.

The ombudsman looked into the celebrations. In response, ONR issued a statement in which the organization said the ombudsman "consciously segregates citizens into 'worse' and 'better' by applying ideological criteria only."

According to ONR, Adam Bodnar broke his oath from his appointment to the office, which can be the grounds for his dismissal.