Concerns regarding the rule of law and human rights in Poland and next steps under the Article 7(1) TEU procedure

Open Letter
Markus Spiske

Ms Věra Jourová, Vice-President, Values and Transparency
Mr Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice
Ms Helena Dalli, Commissioner for Equality

1 December 2020

Dear Vice-President Jourová, Commissioner Reynders and Commissioner Dalli,

We are writing to raise our longstanding and grave concerns concerning the deterioration of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Poland. In light of recent developments and continued and persistent attacks against the rule of law and human rights in Poland, we believe it is critical for the European Commission to issue an update to its Reasoned Proposal under Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) expanding the scope of the ongoing procedure to include violations of EU values as set out in Article 2 TEU.

As you are aware, on 22 October 2020 the Polish Constitutional Tribunal issued a decision on constitutional claims filed by members of the Polish Sejm and formally supported by the Prosecutor General regarding the Act of 7 January 1993 on Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection, and Conditions of Legal Pregnancy Termination (the “Act”). In its decision, the Tribunal upheld those claims and found that certain provisions of the Act that provide for the legality of women’s access to reproductive health care are unconstitutional.

In particular, the Constitutional Tribunal held that Art. 4a sec. 1 point 2 of the Act, which allows the termination of pregnancy in situations of “severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness that threatens the fetus’ life” is inconsistent with Art. 38 in conjunction with Art. 30 and in conjunction with Art. 31 sec. 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland. [1]

The decision has not been published by the Polish Government, and therefore has not yet taken binding legal effect, although as a result of the decision, we have received reports that some hospitals are already cancelling procedures or refusing to provide legal abortion care. When the decision does take effect, it will lead to violations of rights protected under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, to the highest attainable standards of health, to privacy, and to non-discrimination. Such a change in the legal status quo is also incompatible with the international principle of non-retrogression as it removes without justification previous legal protections for women’s human rights.

As a result, this decision also will undermine adherence to the EU values of the rule of law, equality, human rights and dignity enshrined in Article 2 TEU. In the starkest terms, the Constitutional Tribunal is now being used to deprive women of their fundamental rights. Under international human rights law Poland is obliged to ensure women’s legal access to abortion care at a minimum when their life or health is at risk, when the pregnancy involves a severe or fatal fetal impairment or results from sexual assault. [2] It has been repeatedly established that a failure to do so will give rise to multiple human rights violations under international treaties that Poland has ratified, including of the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. By removing a long-established legal ground for access to abortion from Polish law, the Tribunal’s decision therefore paves the way for violations of international human rights law. [3]

Further, because of the serious questions over the legitimacy of the current Constitutional Tribunal, its decision should not be considered a decision of a “tribunal previously established by law” - in contravention of Article 47(2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Indeed, between July 2016 and December 2017, the European Commission adopted four Rule of Law Recommendations concerning Poland under its Rule of Law Framework and concluded that, in light of legislation impacting the functioning and independence of the Constitutional Tribunal, there was a clear risk of a breach of the rule of law as outlined in Article 2 TEU. The European Commission expressed serious concerns regarding the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal, noting that, “the constitutionality of Polish laws can no longer be effectively guaranteed. The judgments rendered by the Tribunal under these circumstances can no longer be considered as providing an effective constitutional review.” The European Commission reiterated these unresolved concerns in its Reasoned Proposal for a Council decision on the determination of a clear risk of a serious breach by the Republic of Poland of the rule of law. [4]

As the Constitutional Tribunal decision of 22 October 2020 demonstrates, these fears have now been realized and underline the extremely grave consequences that the rule of law deficit is now having on adherence to EU values. The continuing lack of an independent and legitimate constitutional review process is now threatening fundamental human rights enshrined in international law and the EU values enshrined in Article 2 TEU. The Tribunal, which is no longer an independent and impartial court, has issued a decision that gravely undermines the values of human rights and equality.

The 22 October decision comes amidst persistent attempts to restrict sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls in Poland; the decision of the Polish Government to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the constitutionality of which will be examined by the Constitutional Tribunal; hate speech and policies that promote intolerance and discrimination against LGBTI+ people and undermine their rights, including the establishment of so-called ‘LGBTI-free zones’ in numerous municipalities across the country; as well as the continued erosion of judicial independence and other fundamental rights and rule of law principles in Poland. The disproportionate use of force by the authorities in response to the peaceful demonstrations that were sparked across the country following the 22 October decision is of deep concern in light of the rights to freedom of assembly and to peacefully express dissent.

We urge the Commission to promptly and effectively address these concerns by extending its scrutiny of the situation in Poland, so as to include recent developments and their impact on all Article 2 TEU values. The lack of independence, impartiality and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal is now presenting a clear risk of serious breaches of EU values outlined in Article 2 TEU, namely respect for human rights and equality. As stated above, the Constitutional Tribunal is being actively used to deprive women of their fundamental rights and, in its current configuration, threatens to further undermine human rights in Poland.

We commend the European Commission’s efforts to hold the Polish government to account for violations of EU law. Further action, however, is urgently needed, on account of the continued deterioration of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Poland, and repeated failures by the Polish government to comply with the Commission’s Recommendations and with the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

We now respectfully request the European Commission to:
• issue an update to its Reasoned Proposal of December 2017 to extend EU scrutiny to recent developments and all Article 2 TEU violations;
• urge the Council to move forward with the ongoing procedure under Article 7(1) TEU, as requested also by the European Parliament in its September 2020 resolution;1
• call on Poland to implement all previous Commission Recommendations and CJEU decisions, and to restore the independence and legitimacy of the Polish judiciary, including the Constitutional Tribunal, without further delay.

We remain at your disposal to provide further information in relation to the requests above.

Yours Sincerely,

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  • Co-signatories

    Amnesty International
    Center for Reproductive Rights
    Human Rights Watch
    International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion
    International Planned Parenthood Federation European Network
    National Women’s Council of Ireland
    Women on Waves
    Women on Web
    Members of the Great Coalition for Equality and Choice (Poland):
    ADDP l’Association Défense de la Démocratie en Pologne
    ASTRA Network
    BABA Lubuskie Stowarzyszenie na Rzecz Kobiet
    Berliński Kongres Kobiet
    Black Brussels Balloons
    Czarny Protest Gliwice
    Democracy is OK (DOK)
    Demokratyczna Unia Kobiet
    Dolnośląskie Forum Kobiet Stowarzyszeń i środowisk Kobiecych
    Dziewuchy Berlin
    Dziewuchy Dziewuchom Francja
    Dziewuchy Londyn
    Dziewuchy Szczecin
    Dziewuchy Szwajcaria
    Federacja na Rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny
    Federacja Polskie Lobby Kobiet
    Femini Berlin Polska
    Feministyczne Stowarzyszenie Polonijne Elles sans Frontieres ASBL
    Fudacja Klamra
    Funcacja Cicha Tęcza
    Fundacja Centrum Praw Kobiet
    Fundacja Czas Dialogu
    Fundacja Droga Kobiet
    Fundacja Edukacja - Równość - Aktywność - Dialog Era Dialogu
    Fundacja Feminoteka
    Fundacja Głosuj na Kobietę
    Fundacja im. Izabeli Jarugi-Nowackiej
    Fundacja im. Kazimierza Łyszczyńskiego
    Fundacja Inicjatywa Kobiet Aktywnych
    Fundacja Kobiety Zmieniają Świat
    Fundacja na Rzecz Równości i Emancypacji STER
    Fundacja Nowoczesnej Edukacji SPUNK
    Fundacja Pozytywnych Zmian
    Fundacja Prawnikon
    Fundacja Przestrzenie Dialogu
    Fundacja Rodzić po ludzku
    Fundacja Trans-Fuzja
    Galeria Inspiracji
    Grupa nieformalna Równość.info
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    Koalicja KARAT
    Kobiety w Sieci
    KOD Kobiety
    Konferencja Episkopatu Polek
    Kongres Kobiet Północnej Wielkopolski (Stowarzyszenie „Metropolia Wielkopolska”)
    Kongres Kobiet w Tomaszowie
    Kongres Kobiet Województwa Śląskiego
    Kongres Świeckości
    Koszalińskie Stowarzyszenie Aktywności Lokalnej Era Kobiet
    Lambda Warszawa
    Lubelska Koalicja na Rzecz Kobiet
    Łódzki Szlak Kobiet
    Manifa Bydgoska
    Manifa Lublin
    Manifa Łódź
    Manifa Rzeszów
    Manifa Toruńska
    Manifest Wolnej Polki
    Mapa kościelnej pedofilli
    Marsz Godności
    Medical Students For Choice Poland
    Międzynarodowy Strajk Kobiet
    Nic o nas bez nas. Ruch kobiecy Gliwice i Pyskowice
    Nieformalna Grupa Czarny Protest
    Nieformalna Grupa Inicjatywna z Bydgoszczy
    Obywatelskie Stowarzyszenie "Możemy"
    Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet
    OSK Gryfino
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    OSK Puławy
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    Polskie Towarzystwo Genderowe
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    Ratujmy Kobiety
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    Różowa skrzyneczka
    Stowarzyszenie Aktywne Kobiety
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    Stowarzyszenie im. Stanisława Brzozowskiego - Krytyka Polityczna
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    Stowarzyszenie Klucz Stop Społecznym Wykluczeniom
    Stowarzyszenie Kobiecy Słupsk
    Stowarzyszenie Kobieta na PLUS
    Stowarzyszenie Kobiety Piaseczno
    Stowarzyszenie Kongres Kobiet
    Stowarzyszenie Koniński Kongres Kobiet
    Stowarzyszenie Łódzkie Dziewuchy Dziewuchom
    Stowarzyszenie Nasz Bocian
    Stowarzyszenie ON/OFF
    Stowarzyszenie Poprawy Spraw Alimentacyjnych – Dla Naszych Dzieci
    Stowarzyszenie Pro Femina
    Stowarzyszenie Prowincja Równości
    Stowarzyszenie Stan Równości
    Stowarzyszenie Stop Stereotypom
    Stowarzyszenie Szlakiem Kobiet
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    Tęczowy Tarnów
    Toruńskie Dziewuchy
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