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The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly votes to bring Poland under its monitoring procedure, January 28, 2020, Strasbourg. © 2020 Philippe Dam/Human Rights Watch

Yesterday, one of Europe’s top human rights bodies voted to bring Poland under its monitoring mechanism. It's the first time in over two decades that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), composed of parliamentarians from all 49 member countries, has taken such a step against an European Union member state.

It is a welcome move and a clear rebuke for the Polish government's years of undermining rule of law.

Since 2015, Poland’s government has enacted regressive laws aimed at bringing courts in line with the ruling party’s interests. In 2016, it rejected rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal and refused to recognize duly appointed judges, appointing its own instead.

In 2017, it attempted to fire judges of the Supreme Court – including its first president – before being forced to backtrack by the EU’s top court. Since 2018, judges and prosecutors have faced arbitrary disciplinary procedures for not toeing the government line.

Poland’s adoption last week of the so-called “muzzle law,” which would allow the authorities to discipline and fire judges carrying out court rulings counter to government policies, made it clearer than ever that the Polish government is deliberately jeopardizing the constitutional principle of separation of powers and the independence of courts.

The Assembly’s monitoring procedure in its current form was established in 1997 to assess adherence to human rights standards by new Council of Europe members. It allows for in-country visits and regular evaluation debates by Assembly members, and could eventually lead to sanctions in case of non-compliance or non-cooperation. The Assembly’s move to place Poland under heightened scrutiny demonstrates how bad the situation is and how unconvincing the arguments used by Polish government’s officials have been.

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda has the opportunity to do the right thing, by refraining to sign the “muzzle law” and stopping attacks on democratic institutions that serve as a check on the executive. 

The European Commission and EU member states should also take action. It’s high time to signal to Warsaw, by moving the procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty forward and tying EU funds to rule of law criteria, that fundamentally undermining the judiciary has political ramifications.

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