Human rights violations on the parliamentary agenda in Hungary and Poland
The increasingly autocratic tendencies observed in Poland and Hungary during the Corona crisis have alarmed the European Union. With street protests currently banned, human rights activists fear that the pandemic will be used by national conservative governments in both countries to consolidate their power and undermine democracy and human rights. The challenge of the COVID 19 crisis must not be used as a distraction from legislative measures aimed at restricting human rights or stigmatizing certain groups of people.
Abortion Ban in Poland
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the Polish government is continuing to work on regressive legislation by putting on the agenda two citizens’ initiatives that restrict the rights to sexual and reproductive self-determination and endanger the lives and health of women and young people.
The Polish House of Commons (Sejm), which is dominated by Jarosław Kaczyński’s ruling conservative party “Law and Justice” (PiS), voted on 16 April to submit a bill to tighten abortion rules in the strictly Catholic country to committees for further review.
Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe which only allows abortion in the event of rape, incest, malformation or incurable illness of the foetus or a serious health threat to the mother. The ultraconservative citizens’ initiative aims to ban abortion even if the foetus is severely disabled and not viable, which is the most common reason for abortion in Poland.
A similar attempt to tighten the abortion law was already rejected by the parliament in 2016, after massive protest by tens of thousands of women. The bill has now returned to the agenda in the middle of the Corona crisis – at a time when freedom of assembly has been suspended.
Monika Rosa, member of parliament for the liberal party Nowoczesna, believes the timing of the bill was deliberately chosen: “The Polish government is exploiting the pandemic outbreak to pass these dangerous laws. It is betting on women’s current reduced ability to protest. It wants to silence the collective voice of women, who are the only authority on the matters related to their bodies and choices.”
Human rights defenders warn that laws restricting or criminalizing abortion encourage women to seek alternatives that could put their lives and health at risk.
The new restriction on abortion laws was proposed by an ultra-conservative Catholic group. Polish President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling PiS party, said he would like to sign the law as soon as it “reaches his desk”. According to polls, Duda has a good chance of being re-elected in May. Many suspect that this is precisely why the Polish government is insisting on holding the presidential election despite the existing Corona emergency measures.
Prison Sentence for Sex Education in Poland
Another bill on the parliamentary agenda could result in prison sentences for public figures such as teachers, authors and health workers, as well as organisations providing sex education or information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) interprets comprehensive sexual education and efforts to promote gender equality as attacks on “traditional” family values and threats to children. It uses such arguments to defame groups fighting for women’s and LGBT rights.
In times like these and in a country where sexual and reproductive rights are already extremely limited, sexuality education is crucial. Comprehensive sexual education is essential to help young people make decisions about things like consensual sex and consent, prevent sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, reduce unwanted pregnancies and maternal mortality, and help people live healthy, safe and productive lives.
Information campaigns, nationwide testing, investment in disease research, support for medical staff, availability of drugs and protection, consideration for others, and overcoming stigma and discrimination have proven successful in combating the corona pandemic. It is time to talk about sexual and reproductive health and to fight sexually transmitted diseases with the same means. Parliamentarians should remember that access to health care, including reproductive health care information, is a human right.
Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, calls on the Polish Parliament to reject the two draft laws. “In this extraordinary time of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians and decision-makers must resist the temptation to push through measures that are incompatible with human rights,” the Commissioner added.
In the few weeks leading up to the Polish presidential elections on 10 May, there is growing concern in the EU that nationalist and populist forces could use the Corona crisis as a cover to tighten the grip on already fragile democracies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already secured the right to govern his country by decree for an indefinite period.
Attack on the Rights of Transgender Persons in Hungary
On 31 March, the Hungarian government under Viktor Orbán presented a draft law to the Hungarian Parliament that would, among other things, make it impossible for transgender persons to legally change their sex.
The category “sex” would be replaced by “the sex assigned at birth” in the national register and in identity documents. If the law were to be approved, any subsequent change to this entry would be expressly prohibited. As data in official documents such as identity cards, driving licences and passports are taken from the national register, the adoption of the law would also affect them.
Human Rights Watch explains the challenges this bill poses to transgender persons: “When governments force trans people to carry documents that don’t match their identity and appearance, every situation when documents are requested or appearance is scrutinized becomes fraught with potential for violence and humiliation.” This exposes transgender persons to potential discrimination in employment, housing, access to goods and services and administrative procedures.
LGBTIQ rights and the so-called “gender ideology” are frequent targets of attack by extreme right-wing and conservative politicians. The national conservative government under Viktor Orbán had previously introduced a measure banning gender studies from the country’s universities.
What the EU Needs to Do Now
The institutions of the European Union should include the ban on abortion, sex education restrictions and the ban on transgender people correcting their legal gender in the long list of human rights and rule of law violations by the Polish and Hungarian governments to be reviewed and urgently press ahead with the Article 7 procedure, which allows for political sanctions to be imposed on an EU Member State. They should also permanently monitor and report on the democratic situation in Poland and Hungary.
Particularly in the current situation, all pro-European forces in the European Parliament should look closely and clearly and courageously condemn any attempt to abuse the powers granted in Corona times for own political ends. The focus of governments during the pandemic should be to protect people’s health and rights, not to endanger them. While some countries are talking about a slow return to normality and the recovery process for their economies hit by the corona pandemic, the recovery of democratic institutions in Poland and Hungary could take a long time.