by Luigi LIMONE (*)
One of the most alarming developments across the European Union is the effort by States to make it easier to invoke and prolong a “state of emergency” as a response to terrorism or the threats to violent attacks. Emergency measures, which are generally supposed to be temporary, have become embedded in ordinary criminal law. Parliaments across the European Union are adopting a number of coercive measures in fast-truck processes, leaving little time for consideration on their impact on human rights and civil liberties.
In compliance with international human rights law, exceptional measures should only be applied in genuinely exceptional circumstances and, as stated by Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”.
Nevertheless, phenomena such as the rise of nationalist parties, anti-refugee sentiment, stereotyping and discrimination against Muslims communities, intolerance for speech or other forms of expression, risk that this “emergency measures” will target certain people for reasons which have nothing to do with a genuine threat to national security or from terrorist-related acts.
Up to now, France is the only EU Member State to have formally declared a state of emergency on national security grounds for terrorism-related acts on the last couple of years. However, other Member States have passed laws in fast-track processes and engaged in operations in response to real or perceived security threats. A clear example comes from Austria and Hungary, which have recently invoked the threat of terrorism in the context of the refugee crisis with profoundly negative impact on the right to seek and enjoy asylum in Europe.
One of the countries which is currently attracting the attention of several NGOs working in the field of human rights protection is Poland. Several cases of human rights violations as well as dismantlement of the rule of law have been reported since the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) party came to power in October 2015.
In June 2016, Poland enacted a new Counter-terrorism Law following a fast-track legislative process. This law consolidates sweeping powers in the hands of the Internal Security Agency (ISA) and, combined with other recent legislative amendments, it creates conditions for violations of the rights to liberty, privacy, fair trial, expression, peaceful assembly and non-discrimination.
The new Counter-terrorism Law gives a broad and vague definition of terrorism which paves the way for: a) the expansion of indiscriminate mass surveillance powers; b) the targeting of foreign nationals; c) the extension of pre-charge detention.
According to Amnesty International, such an ill-defined and imprecise definition allows for disproportionate interference with human rights as well as arbitrary application and abuse.
The UN Human Rights Committee recommended in October 2016 that a definition be adopted that “does not give the authorities excessive discretion or obstruct the exercise of rights”.
The Counter-terrorism law includes provision for the Director of the Internal Security Agency to order the immediate blocking of specific websites with no prior judicial authorization if he or she considers that a delay could result in “terrorist incident”. Such a provision compromises the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is also under threat under the new Counter-terrorism Law.
The Law, in fact, establishes a terror alert system which, if it reaches the level of three or four, allows the authorities to ban assemblies and large-scale events in particular locations.
The lack of transparency in the operation of the alert system, together with the vague definition of terrorism, could result in violations of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. As a result, the terror alert system could be used by the government as an excuse to ban peaceful public protests against its policy on a wide range of issues, including abortion or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) rights.
Foreign nationals in Poland are particular targets of the new Counter-terrorism Law. They can be subjected to a range of covert surveillance measures, including wire-tapping, monitoring of electronic communications and surveillance of telecommunication networks and devices without any judicial oversight for the first three months.
Such surveillance is permitted if there is a “fear” that a foreign national may be involved in terrorism-related activities. In addition, the Law does not provide procedural safeguards to ensure that anyone made aware of surveillance can challenge it and have access to an effective remedy against unlawful surveillance. It also impacts Polish citizens who communicate or live with foreigners under investigation.
Poland’s new Counter-terrorism Law also provides for 14 days of detention without charge of people suspected of “terrorist crimes”. Since such detention measures can be adopted on the basis of information obtained through the broad surveillance powers given to the executive, the suspects and their lawyer may be denied access to the evidence upon which the pre-charge detention is based. Given the fact that the new surveillance powers primarily target foreigners, such measures could discriminate against non-nationals and have a disproportionate impact on foreign individuals, their families and communities.
Furthermore, the situation in Poland appears very critical when it comes to criminal law and to protection from discrimination and hate crimes in particular. While the country has made some progress in addressing hate crimes against certain groups, it has left others entirely behind, thus creating a double system and a significant protection gap in law as well as in practice.
Polish criminal law provides for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and political affiliation. However, it does not establish that age, disability, gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and social or economic status are grounds to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
As stated in a report published by Amnesty International in September 2015, members of ethnic minorities, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants continue to experience discrimination and violence in practice. In addition, transgender and intersex people are not explicitly protected from discrimination on grounds of gender identity and expression, and protection on the grounds of disability and religion is limited as well.
The situation is particularly crucial with regard to discrimination motivated by gender identity as well as expression and sexual orientation. LGBTI people are not sufficiently protected, as demonstrated by the huge number of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. As far as women and girls are concerned, they continue to face obstacles in accessing legal and safe abortion and frequent cases of sexual harassment and rape are still being reported.
The current legal framework governing abortion in Poland is one of the most restrictive in Europe with terminations legally permitted only when the life of the foetus is under threat, when there is a grave threat to the health of the mother and in the instance that the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.
A new bill proposing to further restrict sexual and reproductive rights was submitted to Parliament on 5 July 2016. The restrictive measure is intended to ban abortion in all circumstances except for when it is considered to be the only means available to save a woman’s life. It would also criminalize women and girls who are found to have obtained abortion as well as the people encouraging or assisting them to do so.
Following mass protests and women’s strikes, the bill has been eventually rejected but the government, supported by the Polish Catholic church, has announced that it is considering other restrictions, including a total ban of emergency contraception and of the morning after-pill in particular.
In conclusion, significant deterioration in several areas has been observed since the Law and Justice party’s assumption of power in October 2015. A total of 148 new laws and legislative amendments have been enacted since then, which have led to serious violation of several fundamental rights enshrined in international human rights treaties, including the right to life, health and freedom from torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment as well as the right to privacy, information, equality and non-discrimination.
(*) FREE Group Trainee
– Dangerously Disproportionate: The Ever-expanding National Security State in Europe, by Amnesty International, 17 January 2017, Index number: EUR 01/5342/2017
– Poland: Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee – 118th session, 17 Oct.-04 Nov. 2016, Index number: EUR 37/4849/2016
– Poland: Dismantling Rule of Law?, Amnesty International Submission for the UN Universal Periodic Review – 27th Session of the Upr Working Group, April/May 2017, EUR: 37/5069/2016