In the run-up to this year’s international climate summit, to be hosted by the southern Polish city of Katowice, the country’s national-conservative government has introduced special rules aimed at “ensuring public safety and order” with a new statute enacted in late January. The provisions include restricted freedom of assembly: no spontaneous demonstrations will be allowed in Katowice from 26 November to 16 December – the period scheduled for the twoweek COP 24 climate summit.
This does not mean that no demonstrations will take place at all: protests registered in advance will presumably be allowed to go ahead. However, in a state of law – as in Poland under normal circumstances – demonstrations can also usually be registered at short notice, or even held without registration. This is intended to safeguard freedom of assembly in the event of fast-moving developments.
By way of example: if the delegates attending the climate conference were to announce a decision on a contentious issue for the following day, there would be no time to register a demonstration through the normal channels. Consequently, a spontaneous or unscheduled demonstration would be the only way for citizens to voice their opinion. The government-sponsored bill was passed by the Sejm – the lower house of the Polish parliament – in mid-January and signed into law by the president, Andrzej Duda, two weeks later.
This encroachment on freedom of assembly is not the only special rule prepared by the Polish government for the climate summit. The law also gives the police powers to “collect, obtain, process and use information, including personal data, about people registered as participants of the COP 24 conference or cooperating with its organisation, without the knowledge and consent of those involved.”
That this can actually happen was confirmed by Nick Nuttall of the UN Climate Secretariat, the event’s organiser, in response to a query: “Since the terrorist events of 9/11 in the United States in 2001, it has been the practice of UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) to share some information on participants when requested by governments hosting climate conferences,” Nuttall declared. “We trust the information will be used for the purposes for which it is shared – namely for the timely processing of visa applications for those wishing to attend.”
The practice, apparently in place for over 15 years, contradicts the secretariat’s previously stated position: in fact, as recently as 25 January the online registration portal was still assuring conference participants that their identification number, date of birth and name “will not be made available to anyone outside of the UNFCCC and the party nominating the participant.” Nuttall conceded that the portal was “out of date,” and promised that it would be updated “to reflect that some data is shared with host governments.” The sentence in question was removed from the website later the same day.
Nuttall declined to comment on Poland’s decision to ban spontaneous demonstrations during the UN climate summit, other than to make the general statement that “the UN Climate Change supports the right of peaceful protest and demonstrations within and outside conferences. However, we also recognise that host governments may need to make security and public safety judgements outside the official UN zones.”
The conference grounds of UN climate summits are, for the duration of each event, considered international territory – not French, Moroccan, German, or, in this case, Polish. So even though impromptu protests are not allowed in the city of Katowice, they can nevertheless take place in the conference centre itself. This is hardly a satisfactory alternative, however: protests held there will have a much smaller public impact, and will be out of bounds to citizens not taking part in the summit.
A similar situation arose during the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris, held in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 13 November on the French capital. The government declared a state of emergency – here too, citing public security and order – with the effect that freedom of assembly was restricted. The measure sparked considerable controversy, with many demonstrations by climate activists taking place in spite of the ban. However, there is a key difference between the two cases. In Paris, there was a concrete reason for the state of emergency. In Katowice there is not – the government is invoking a threat to security almost a year before the event.
Katarzyna Guzek of Greenpeace Poland believes the new law is designed to intimidate government critics. “This is yet another step by the government to limit civil society’s ability to make itself heard,” she said in an interview, adding that the move echoes an overall trend: “They are trying to make it difficult for NGOs and citizens to criticise the government.” There is good reason to expect the global climate movement to be critical of host country Poland, which gets almost all of its electricity from coal and is the EU’s leading producer of black coal. At the EU level, Poland regularly seeks to dilute legislation which might harm the interests of coal companies.
As the centre of Poland’s coal industry, host city Katowice in the south of the country is a powerful symbol for all of this. The national-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) has been in government since November 2015, and holds an absolute majority in both houses of parliament. In its first two years in power, it has enacted a series of laws and regulations which erode basic democratic principles such as the separation of powers or the rights of the opposition and other government critics.
The European Commission responded to these developments in December by announcing that it believed there to be a serious threat to the rule of law in the country. In order to assess the situation, the Commission has triggered Article 7 of the EU Treaty for the first time ever, with potentially grave consequences for Poland: if the accusations are upheld, the country could lose its EU voting rights.