The rise of far-right authoritarianism in Poland is part of a larger worldwide trend. Poland’s ruling party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, i.e., Law and Justice Party) which has held both a parliamentary majority and the presidential office since 2015, has gradually increased its control over media, civil society, cultural institutions, and academia. It espouses socially conservative views on family, gender, and LGBTQ+ rights and, in the past few years, has blatantly adopted a xenophobic discourse against post-Arab Spring refugees and non-Christian migrants. In 2016, the PiS disbanded the Council for the Prevention of Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which advised and coordinated with the government on matters of discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. This is not the first or only incident where the PiS government has violated their commitments to constitutional values and international human rights. However, it marked the PiS’s tendency to strategically and selectively disregard their supposed commitments to fundamental principles of human rights, including the rights to intellectual and academic freedom and freedom of speech, all protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Poland is a signatory.
Evidence of this is clearly visible in the actions of Poland’s current education and science minister, Przemysław Czarnek, who was appointed in October 2020, and has been a prominent voice of the PiS’s authoritarian discourse. The religious fundamentalist, Czarnek, as a governor of the Lublin region was instrumental in creating the infamous LGBT-free zones in Eastern Poland. (They are municipalities and regions which have in 2020 declared themselves inhospitable of LGBTQ+ rights.) Czarnek has a history of suppressing academic and intellectual freedom, especially regarding Polish xenophobic history and queer feminism. Before his appointment, in 2018, he requested prosecutors to investigate the historian, Dr. Grzegorz Kuprianowicz, head of the Ukrainian Society in Poland, for speaking about the killing of Ukrainians by Poles during WWII. He also filed a suit to the state prosecutor against Dr. habil. Tomasz Kitlinski of Curie University in Lublin for criticizing his antisemitism, Ukrainophobia, misogyny, and homophobia. Czarnek also attacked Kitlinski for commissioning an art installation about the history of antisemitic pogroms in Poland.
As the minister of education, Czarnek has made highly alarming remarks about gender and sexual minorities, while advocating for reforms that include incorporating the party’s far-right, conservative, and nationalist ideology into primary education and university curriculums, and rewriting official history by altering historical facts in an ultranationalist manner. In November 2020, numerous members of the Polish academic community called for the dismissal of Czarnek, citing his “lack of respect for people with different views, [as well as] Ukrainophobia, antisemitism, dehumanization of non-heteronormative people, misogyny and praising corporal punishment of children”. In response, Czarnek threatened to withdraw funding from universities.
He also tried to impose a new law that would give his office of religious fundamentalists the authority to strictly surveil entire school system. So far, the law has been successfully fenced off by the political opposition, but he managed to establish new nationalistic colleges. He also has continued his attempts to intimidate and prosecute dissident academics: Professor Inga Iwasiów of Szczecin University for feminist speech; Professor Wojciech Sadurski of Sydney University for criticism of the PiS government unconstitutional legal changes. Moreover, the Polish president Andrzej Duda refuses to grant the title of Professor to Dr. habil. Michał Bilewicz for his academically recognized publications on Polish antisemitism today.
The PiS government has successfully packed the courts and instrumentalized the judiciary to spread and consolidate its far-right authoritarian agenda, including on matters of academic freedom. On February 9, 2021, a court ordered two scholars to apologize for publishing their research on the Holocaust. The court accused the two authors, Professors Jan Grabowski of the University of Ottawa and Barbara Engelking of the Center for Holocaust Research, Polish Academy of Sciences, of defamation by implying that a Polish mayor had assisted Nazi Germany. Research shows that while there was no Polish government during WWII to be allied with the German government, and thousands of Poles were part of the anti-fascist resistance, many individuals did participate in horrifying atrocities during WWII.
While the post-Arab Spring refugee crisis has been socio-economically overwhelming and politically polarizing for the country, by the fifth month of the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine (as of July 27, 2022), Poland has welcomed approximately 4 million Ukrainian refugees, about 60% of the total number fleeing. While Endangered Scholars Worldwide acknowledges and supports the extraordinary effort the Polish society and government has made in hosting and supporting Ukrainian refugees, we condemn the racial discrimination they exhibited in barring African students who were studying in Ukraine from crossing the border into Poland. The Polish government has been harsh in their treatment of Middle Eastern and Afghan refugees, using water cannons and tear gas to discourage them from crossing the Poland-Belarus border. Some of the refuges have died on this border while the government censors research and art about this. ESW condemns the PiS government’s attack on minorities and violent treatment of the post-Arab Spring refugees and the blatant violation and selective application of human rights.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide is deeply concerned by the antisemitic, nationalist, misogynist, homophobic, and Islamophobic sentiments displayed by the Poland’s education minister, which epitomizes the Polish government’s anti-democratic political orientation. We at ESW call attention to not only the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric espoused by minister Czarnek, but also the overall lack of academic freedom and the many egregious human rights violations in Poland under the PiS government. Endangered Scholars Worldwide urges the Polish government to rededicate themselves to their commitment to human rights, including academic freedom and university autonomy. ESW also urges the Polish government to treat all refugees equally, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or religion, and welcome them as per the UN Refugee Convention they are party to.
Please send appeals to the following:
Ministry of Education and Science
Address: Ministerstwo Edukacji i Nauki, ul. Wspólna 1/3, 00-529 Warszawa - Poland
Phone: +48 22 34 74 210
Fax: +48 22 34 74 229
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Poland to the United Nations in New York
Address: 750 Third Avenue, 30th Floor, New York, NY 10017
Telephone: +1 646 559 7552
Fax: +1 212 517 6771, +1 212 744 2510