Poland: UN expert concerned that erosion of cultural freedom threatens the country’s rich cultural life

A UN human rights expert says Poland’s achievements in developing a vibrant cultural life are currently challenged by official efforts at regressive cultural “engineering”.

Geneva/Warsaw, Oct 05, 2018.- One of the most important myths that must be questioned is that of “homogenous” Polish culture, the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, said in a statement at the end of a 12-day visit to Poland.

She said it was disturbing to hear that the term “anti-Polish” was being applied to Poles who express views different than those of the Government or ruling party. “Polish identity does not belong to any one group, or any one opinion bloc alone, but to all the citizens of Poland. The diversity of perspectives, approaches and views – from avant garde theatre directors to traditional clergy – and the vibrant debates I experienced in Poland are sources of its cultural richness.”

Like many countries today, Poland is currently experiencing political and cultural polarization and its Government is trying to promote cultural expressions which reflects its worldview, Bennoune said. Many of the Special Rapporteur’s interlocutors indicated concerns about the influence of the Catholic church in regard to matters of education, politics and public policy, including those with significant importance for the enjoyment of cultural rights without discrimination. “Implementing the constitutionally guaranteed separation of religion and state is critical,” she said.

The expert expressed concerns about the increasing prominence and aggressiveness in Poland of some far right wing nationalist groups, Christian fundamentalist groups and media outlets. “The apparent normalization of some of these discriminatory and exclusionary views, including their expression by some government officials without consequences, is particularly worrying.”

Survey data has indicated that the debates over the amendments of the Law on the Institute of National Remembrance may have contributed to the increase in hate speech, in particular of an anti-Semitic nature, of an increasingly open and public nature.

“In view of the upcoming 100th anniversary of Polish independence in November 2018, an event about which many Poles have understandably strong feelings of pride, I call on the Government to take steps to ensure that this significant event is marked in ways that include, rather than exclude, and that do not equate discrimination with patriotism,” Bennoune said.

The Special Rapporteur said women’s rights were at the heart of the quest for a culture of equality in Poland. “Anti-choice discourse during the debate over changing the abortion law in Poland reaffirmed stereotypical cultural attitudes toward women,” she said. “Women’s public activism, including in the Black Marches, helped to challenge such stereotypes.”

Bennoune also expressed concern about the lack of specific legal protection for LGBT persons under Polish law. “Hate speech against LGBT people, including in reference to their cultural events, continues and must be countered through anti-discrimination education,” she said.

According to the Special Rapporteur, “respect for Poland’s constitution, and safeguarding of the independence of the judiciary, are amongst the most important steps that must be taken to secure cultural rights.”

Poland’s record of ratification of international and regional instruments relating to human rights and to culture was very strong, the Special Rapporteur said, however more needs to be done to effectively implement such international standards in practice.

The Special Rapporteur will present a comprehensive report and recommendations to a future session of the UN Human Rights Council.

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