When it comes to human rights, and the lack thereof, it is usually dictatorships in other parts of the world that come to mind. It is easy to forget that these complex questions may just as well surface in Europe; for example Poland, a stable democracy with strong Catholic roots, also has some human rights issues on the political agenda, much due to incompatibility between cultural-religious traditions and the contemporary, more liberal trends in human rights.

In short, human rights are rights that can be claimed by all individuals, simply by merit of being human. To define what these rights are, the International Bill of Human Rights could be a good starting point. It is a set of three essential UN documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both established in 1966). Plenty of the rights defined by these documents are safe and accepted in Poland, but a few flashpoints remain.

The three most controversial human-rights issues in Poland are abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church has been very opinionated on all these matters: quite simply, the Catholic Church does not consider them human rights. The Church’s opposition to abortion and euthanasia can be connected to the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, in which only God can decide between life and death. Objections to same-sex marriage is based on the notion of marriage as a sacrament, and something which is reserved for heterosexual unions. Moreover, homosexuality is seen as a mental disorder.

The Polish love affair with Catholicism is a long one. Christianity was adopted in 966, but despite a long time of religious coexistence, the country today has a mainly Catholic population – according to the CIA World Factbook, 90% of Poles confess to the Catholic faith, with about 75% actually practicing. Religion has an important part in Polish politics: in Soviet times, religion was used as a force of resistance, culminating in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla became pope John Paul II. He was not only the first non-Italian pope, but also from the eastern bloc, making him a controversial choice. Since then, times have changed, but the Catholic Church still has great power in Poland, which can be seen in the manifestos and agendas of the different political parties, as well as in their opinion on some human-rights issues. The notion of religiosity as a manner of expressing discontent, however, still remains in some political circles today.

In 2004, Poland joined the European Union. Although there is no common legislation on issues of abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, it is probable that a common strategy will emerge – and it is unlikely to be as conservative as some of the forces in Poland would wish for. Already, the European Union has made it possible to avoid some obstacles present in Poland: abortion is forbidden in Poland – with a handful of exceptions – but due to the open borders within the European Union, Polish women are able to go to neighbouring countrie

There are two parties in Poland, which more or less run the political scene: the governing Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) and the main opposition, the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS). PO is a center-right party, while PiS is definitely right-wing conservative. These two parties are fierce rivals, but are surprisingly often of similar opinions.

PO has a conservative approach when it comes to social and ethical issues: it is against abortion, against euthanasia and against same-sex marriage. PiS’ agenda is very similar, with added support from the Catholic Church. According to PiS, any form of legal recognition of homosexual couples would be impossible.



However, the influence of the Church on politics is being increasingly questioned. Parallel to a slow but constant decrease of religiosity within the population, particularly amongst young Poles, more and more people think that religion and politics need to be separated, and welcome a more liberal approach to certain issues. This demand is what Janusz Palikot, a businessman and politician formerly associated with PO known for his straight talking, wanted to target with his recent involvement in Polish party politics.

Palikot was ousted from PO because of his embarrassing stance on the tragic plane crash in April 2010 – accusing the deceased president Lech Kaczynski of having been responsible for the accident, either through impatience or inebriation.

Palikot refused to be down-and-out for long, and has since created his own party, attracting an ever-increasing larger supporter base with precisely the candid style of rhetoric that got him in trouble in PO.

One of Palikot’s primary goals is separating the Church from politics; other issues pushed are the enforcement of legal equality, including right to same-sex marriage, allowing euthanasia, institutionalising support for contraception, and banning religion as a subject in schools, replacing it with modern sexual education. Palikot claims that such reforms are crucial in the urgent need of modernization of Poland. The Church is important, even to Palikot – but has no place in politics.

October’s parliamentary elections gave a good measure of the voters’ opinions: the incumbent PO will remain in power – with Palikot’s party surprisingly becoming the third-largest party, reflecting the hopes of young voters, who hope that he will bring about a change in Poland’s approach to human rights.


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