As this month’s climate talks in Germany come to an end, some participants are feeling a little queasy. Environmental activists and indigenous peoples worry about their ability to actively participate in the annual UN climate talks, in Katowice, Poland in December.
UN human rights experts share their concerns. Earlier this week five experts - including the special rapporteurs on environment and human rights, on freedom of assembly, and human rights defenders - raised the alarm about a new Polish law that could hamper civil society’s involvement at the climate summit, known as the COP24. It will bring together state parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), and thousands of experts, journalists, businesses and nongovernmental groups.
The UN experts cite concerns about the ban on spontaneous assemblies in Katowice during the talks, which will make it difficult for groups to respond to developments at the negotiations. In a letter sent to the Polish government last month they said that by “curtail[ing] the possibility of spontaneously expressing views about the unfolding of the climate talks and organizing peaceful assemblies to this effect”, the new law appears to go beyond the rights restrictions necessary to ensure security and safety at the conference.
The UN experts also noted that the law “appears to give sweeping surveillance powers to the police and secret services to collect and process personal data about all COP24 participants”. This is a serious issue for the safety of climate activists at the summit.
Some environmentalists are under attack because of their work, and they worry that the Polish law could be used to spy on them and lead to retaliation. This is not only a threat to their individual rights, but could hamper the success of the summit. Activists play an important role in the global climate debate by providing relevant information to policymakers and the media, but they can only do that if they can effectively exercise their rights.
Last month, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, acknowledged the concerns about the law in a letter to observer organizations, and committed to “engage with the COP24 Polish presidency in an effort to ensure that non-party stakeholders are able to participate in COP24 as they have in past COPs”. However, her letter doesn’t address the specific risks the law could pose to public participation.
The Polish government has yet to respond to the UN rights experts. But a reply from the Polish environment minister to similar concerns raised by the Bureau of the Aarhus Convention, a regional human rights and environmental body, has done little to dispel them.
The government contends that the dates of the conference are known, so that activists could “book” demonstrations in advance. But at climate negotiations, events unfold quickly and progress is often not clear until the last moment. Unless nongovernmental groups can respond spontaneously and organize peaceful protests when necessary, their rights are seriously undermined.
The Polish government also compares the ban to the situation in 2015 in Paris, where the terrorist attacks immediately preceding the climate conference led to a ban on demonstrations in the city. But unlike in Paris, the Polish ban is not a reaction to a concrete security threat.
Similarly, the Polish government claims that the surveillance powers for the police are necessary “due to the temporary increase in terrorist, extremist and common crime threats.” In addition to collecting information about anyone posing a threat to public safety and order, the new law authorizes the police to collect data about anyone registered as participants in COP24 without their consent until January 31, 2019.
But, the UN experts said, providing this authority without judicial review “appears to be unwarranted and unbalanced”. This is particularly true in light of the existing counterterrorism provisions in Poland that grant extraordinary surveillance powers to the Internal Security Agency for anyone suspected of terrorist activity, especially foreigners.
During meetings in Bonn this week, the Polish government emphasized its commitment to work closely with civil society to confront the global climate crisis and achieve the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement. To make this a reality, Poland should urgently amend or repeal the law to ensure that non-party stakeholders can fully exercise their rights during COP24. The UNFCCC Secretariat and other governments involved in the negotiations should work with the Polish government to provide the space for a vibrant civil society at the climate talks.
As the statement of the UN experts notes: “All eyes are on the Polish Government to see how, as the host and the president of COP24, it will honour its human rights obligations and uphold its responsibility to ensure free and unfettered access for broader participation.”
Katharina Rall is an environment researcher at Human Rights Watch. Her work focuses on human rights violations in the context of climate change and environmental health.