WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A leading international human rights body expressed concern Monday about a “risk of paralysis” in the institution of the human rights commissioner, or ombudsman, in Poland.
The ombudsman’s office is an independent institution that protects the freedom and civil rights of individuals. International concerns about its functioning follow five years of democratic backsliding in Poland under a nationalist conservative government.
The Venice Commission, which is an advisory group on constitutional matters for Europe’s leading human rights body, the Council of Europe, said in a statement Monday that is is crucial to defending people’s freedoms.
“The ombudsman is an important element in a state based on democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and good administration,” it said.
It added: “Continuity in office is of outmost importance.”
The term of the most recent commissioner, Adam Bodnar, ended in September, but parliament hasn’t chosen his successor, and under the law he remains in his position until a new commissioner is chosen.
Under Bodnar, the office has been widely respected for its defense of human rights, and is the only state body — aside from the Senate — to have maintained its independence from the ruling party, Law and Justice.
Bodnar’s office has at times criticized actions taken by the government, which has been eroding judicial independence and has used discriminatory language against minorities, including LGBT people.
Some ruling party lawmakers have asked the Constitutional Tribunal to strike down a law stating that the outgoing commissioner perform his duties until a replacement is chosen.
The hearing and potential judgment of the constitutional court is scheduled for Oct. 20.
Under current law, the Senate, where opposition parties have a razor-thin majority, has a key role in nominating a new ombudsman. Bodnar says he fears that if the constitutional court strikes down the current law, the ruling party could find a way to excluded the Senate from nominating the next ombudsman.
The “protection of human rights requires stability and predictability. That is why the new Ombudsman should be elected in accordance with the constitutional procedure,” Bodnar said.
The Venice Commission said if the ombudsman can’t function fully, it “would have a significant adverse effect on the protection of the rights of the Polish citizens and of all people living in Poland.”