WECHANGE at EuropeLab 2017 in Gdansk

Charlotte Bull and Enno Strudthoff

WECHANGE was in attendance at EuropeLab 2017 in Gdansk, where Adam Bodnar, the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights, held the opening speech. 

„These protests may change the future of Poland,“ says the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, speaking this week in Gdansk at EuropeLab, an event organised by EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. During his keynote speech, he underlined the imminent threat facing democracy in Poland.

Bodnar was speaking at the opening of EuropeLab, an event bringing together young, civically engaged professionals from the EU and Russia. The meeting is taking place at the European Solidarity Centre, the state-of-the-art museum and cultural centre that commemorates the revolution of Solidarity in Poland and promotes the democratic values embodied by the historical movement.

„We can observe an elimination of checks and balances within the Polish constitutional system,“ the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights argued. Bodnar was referring to the latest draft of legislation levied by the current Polish government, which sought to establish political control over the country’s judiciary. However, this is just the latest wave of sweeping reforms that the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has sought to implement, previously also targeting independent media and reproductive rights. Bodnar, who was first elected to his current position in September 2015, pointed to October of that year as the start of Poland’s „road towards illiberal democracy.“

Since then, the government’s plans have been met with resistance from the population. In recent weeks, there have been protests in over 150 towns and cities across the country, with citizens voicing their outrage at the perceived assault on the rule of law and their civil liberties. These mass protests have already played a crucial role in hindering the government’s reform program, most recently leading to President Andrzej Duda to veto two of the three proposed justice reform bills.

Bodnar, formerly of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, argued that during the last few months, the climate in Polish civil society has changed. Protests in their various forms are becoming increasingly important and ever more diverse. Crucially, the demographic of the protest movements has begun to shift and, according to Bodnar, it is no longer just the middle-aged „40 plus“ section of the population who are predominantly taking to the streets, but the younger generation is increasingly joining them too. A promising sign in Bodnar’s eyes.

The Commissioner for Human Rights was keen to note that, whilst this was not planned, EuropeLab was taking place „at a very special moment in time for Polish history“. Bodnar was keen to emphasise the role civil society has to play in a successful democracy, not only by affecting change directly, but by setting a courageous example for those within legislative and governing bodies.

Indeed, he ended his speech with a poignant call-to-action for all citizens, regardless of their nationality – „Keep the flame alive – you never know when your ideas will become important for the future of your country.“

photo by Nicolai Herzog

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