Professor John Knox
Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights
OHCHR-Palais Wilson CH-1211
Geneva 10, Switzerland

Dear Professor Knox,

I’m writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to raise concerns regarding a law adopted by the Polish Parliament in January 2018 that we believe will hamper the rights of environmental activists to protest and subject them to government surveillance at the December 2018 UN climate change conference in Katowice, Poland.

As you are aware, Poland holds the presidency for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24), a conference that is anticipated to lead to important decisions regarding the implementation of the Paris Agreement and that will have profound impacts on communities around the world.

Throughout your career as Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, you have highlighted the importance of public participation in environmental decision-making processes. Given the already limited opportunities for effective public participation in the UNFCCC process, the preservation of civic space in and around COP24 is of utmost importance.

Article 22 of the Polish law explicitly forbids spontaneous demonstrations in Katowice during the climate talks, which will make it difficult for members of the public and civil society to respond to developments at the negotiations.

Furthermore, Article 17.1 of the law allows Polish police to obtain, collect, and analyze personal data about registered conference participants and people associated with its organization, without judicial oversight or their knowledge and consent. We are concerned that these measures could be used to spy on environmental activists and indigenous leaders participating in COP24.

These aspects of the law are particularly concerning to us for two reasons. First, because it contributes to the closing of civic space that we are seeing in Poland and worldwide. Human Rights Watch has previously documented how the Polish government changed its law of assemblies to give priority to government-approved demonstrations and ban related counter-protests.

Second, the law is emblematic of the particular challenges faced by environmental defenders across the globe as they are harassed, threatened, and killed for their activism.

While we recognize that the Polish government has a legitimate interest in ensuring the security of conference participants, we believe that the measures laid out in this new law will unreasonably curtail the rights of environmental activists and effective public participation of civil society at COP24.

Moreover, the law appears to threaten the realization of Articles 3.7 and 3.8 of the Aarhus Convention, to which Poland is a party. Article 3.7 states that “parties should promote the application of the principles of this Convention in international environmental decision-making processes….” The Parties to the Aarhus Convention have repeatedly recognized the importance of ensuring public participation in international forums. Article 3.8 of the Convention provides that state parties “shall ensure that persons exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of this Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.”

As you have previously noted, the duty to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making processes correspond with civil and political rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. And this duty extends to the rights to a healthy environment, to life, to health, to property, and others. In order to craft nuanced, adequate, and rights-respecting policies that protect the environment, members of the public and civil society need to be able to effectively participate in decision-making processes relating to climate change.

We urge you in your capacity as the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment to assess the Polish law and to express concerns over its broader implications for environmental rights.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require any additional information or would like to discuss further.


Marcos Orellana
Environment and Human Rights Division
Human Rights Watch