Zbigniew Ziobro Heat Level: Blazing withdrawal means significant setback for women’s rights in Poland

  • + The far right politician blazes ahead with his strategy and strengthens Polish  conservative social agenda.
  • + This is a major win for the Polish ruling party PiS and their strong partnership with the Catholic Church
  • + Withdrawing from the treaty imposes a major setback for women’s rights in Poland
Source: Oprac

Why is Zbigniew Ziobro’s heat level blazing?

Answer: Driven by the desire to push a conservative agenda in Poland, Ziobro’s withdrawal effectively accomplishes this. Yet, while his heat level rises, Poland’s as a whole might fall. 

Last week, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that Poland is contemplating withdrawing from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence treaty; also known as the ‘Istanbul Convention,’ that he considers “harmful.” The Council of Europe (COE) is a human rights organisation that works independently from the European Union. Over 10 years ago, the treaty was issued to serve as a binding instrument for the protection of women rights. It aims to address the social injustices women face regarding gender based violence. 

The most important principles in the convention condemn any form of violence against women and recognize that gender based violence is a result of historically unequal power relations between women and men; which has resulted in discrimination against women. Moreover, it touches upon the issues of domestic violence, violence, sexual harassment, rape, forced marriage, and other crimes that violate the welfare of women and girls. Lastly, the convention aspires to build a Continental Europe free from violence against women and girls. Overall, the Istanbul Convention holds a series of recommendations to ensure equal standards as well as mechanisms to amend women’s welfare. 

That said, the Polish Catholic Church considers the the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence as harmful to society as it promotes “nonstereotypical sexual roles”  and thus, corrupts the youth because it has educational content on homosexuality and transsexuality. While one might wonder where the Church’s authority ends and the Polish government starts, Ziobro reportedly claimed that behind his decision of dramatic withdrawal is his belief that Poland does not require such a treaty as the country possesses:

 “a higher level of protection of women than in the convention.” Subsequently, he stated that it “concerns ideology and harms the interests of women and of family.”

Justice Minister Ziobro

The drastic move of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention effectively places Poland back and the right-wing agenda forward; marking his decision as a rather retrogressive measure. If putting Poland back weren’t enough, Ziobro’s withdrawal breaches both The European Convention on Human Rights and international human rights law.

Who is changing Ziobro’s temperature?

Answer: On the one hand, the PiS raises Ziobro’s temperature through support; while on the other hand, the concerns of Polish citizens and the EU are in opposition to Ziobro’s latest blazes.

Ziobro is a solid pawn for the ultra right in Poland as Ziobro was a member of the Law and Justice Party from 2001 until 2011. Then, in 2012, he created the United Poland Party whose genesis is the ultra-catholic and conservative agenda. Since the United Poland Party is allied to the PiS, Minister Ziobro is in communion with the Polish right-wing (PiS) governmental agenda; which, just this month, celebrated their re-election victory. Once again in power, their quite conservative agenda is rendering results. For example, the PiS is known for its socially traditionalist and moralist agenda, infallibly against LGBTQ+ rights and abortion. 

Since 2015, both parties have ruled with rhyme and reason as the PiS has seized dominance of the president’s office and held a significant majority in parliament. In addition, their influence of power has reached over the judiciary institutions, the public mass media, and a series of state-owned companies. With all these spheres by their side; made up of politicians like Ziobro, the PiS inexhaustibly rules with an upper hand. 

This is not the first incident between the Istanbul Convention and Ziobro. When the convention was ratified in 2015, Ziobro was serving as a Polish rep to the European Parliament. Interestingly, when the Istanbul Convention was originally ratified, Ziobro expressed his inconformity and referred to it as “an invention, a feminist creation aimed at justifying gay ideology.”  This sentiment has not changed since 2015 as  the current Polish government considers the Istanbul Convention a threat against their religious ethos as, according to them, the EU treaty promotes controversial ideologies regarding the concept of gender. While Poland as a EU member must  follow a policy of gender-mainstreaming, Ziobro’s unilateral move comes naturally to illustrate where the future of Poland is going; at least under this administration. 

Alarmingly, this is not the first red flag for women’s rights in the nation. Just last year, Polish law was amended when a bill was drafted to modify the definition of what constitutes domestic violence. As a result, domestic violence in Poland now only applies when spouses are beaten more than once. This raised serious concerns among the Polish society and international institutions and governments such as the EU. To demonstrate, Amnesty International issued a report evaluating the welfare of Polish women and condemning the state’s lack of mechanisms to prevent, eradicate and punish gender-based violence. In one way or another, Poland’s governance seems to have a clear path, of which politicians like Ziobro are quickly paving the way.

What is driving Ziobro?

Answer: Ziobro’s decision bolsters him towards a more powerful position in the government as he diminishes the EU as a macro-institution.

As Ziobro’s heat level blazes, the EU’s future walks on thin ice. Remarking his nationalist political approach, Ziobro rather bets on Poland’s domestic laws than fall under EU standards. Ziobro is not alone in his sentiments as the Polish Deputy Justice Minister, Marcin Romanowski, referred to the treaty as “gender gibberish.” Through ministers like Ziobro and Romanowski, Poland’s far right is coming strong; reversing former political strategies once held under other administrations. For instance, it was a previous centrist government who signed the Istanbul Convention back in 2012. In 2020, however, there are many that agree with Ziobro’s withdrawal; mostly the grass roots of right-wing parties like PiS which make evident and palpable the backbone of today’s Polish politics. 

Ziobro’s decision caused a series of intense backclash among various EU leaders. For example, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian member of the European Parliament (MEP) tweeted that Ziobro’s move was “scandalous,” arguing that “violence is not a traditional value.”  In addition, Marija Pejčinović Burić, the Council of Europe Secretary General stated that:

Leaving the Istanbul Convention would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe.”

Secretary General Burić

In the big picture, such backlash points out that the PiS; Poland’s current ruling party, will continue its feud with the EU.

One might wonder if acts like this mean that the days of the union are counted. It appears that Ziobro and the Polish government are moving further from respecting, protecting, fulfilling and promoting efforts to ensure the rights of citizens who do not concur with their idiosyncrasy. As a result, clashes with the EU are causing a culture war between those who believe in democratic values and those who hold nationalist sentiments; severely hampering the success of an EU vision. The lines between international cooperation and nation state sovereignty are being highlighted and redrawn. United In Diversity,” the EU Motto, is now a more distant reality for Poland and sorrowfully, other states may soon follow this path. How the EU handles (or mishandles) this will make a difference in Ziobro’s (and Poland) future decisions. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The new conservative agenda in Poland is ostracizing certain segments of the population. Apparently if you are not part of the club, your rights don’t matter.

As Ziobro’s heat level rises, Polish women tremble. If you are a Polish woman, this means that the Polish state is giving you the cold-shoulder by eroding their responsibility to protect you. Poland is proving to the EU, its citizens and the world that ensuring women’s rights is not a priority; alongside a number of other marginalized groups. After Ziobro’s statement was made public, thousands of protesters went to the streets across all of Poland, expressing their discontent and more importantly, their fear and concern of what this could mean for them as the Polish state has left them out in the cold. Specifically, in Warsaw, protesters manifested outside the Ordoiuris headquarters; an ultra-conservative association which campaigned against the convention on the basis that it imposes controversial ideologies about gender. Notwithstanding Warsaw, these protests were held in several cities all over Poland including Gdansk, Katowice, Krakow, Lodz, and Poznan among others. Ultimately, a culture war is heating up as social cohesion is eroding both within Poland and within the EU.

Alarmingly, more segments of Polish society are now living with fear of Ziobro and the rest of the administration. For example, the leader of the Law and Justice Party has referred to migrants as a threat who bring to Poland all sorts of parasites.” Along those lines, President Duda’s conservative agenda also repudiated the LGBTQ+ population, to whom he stated have an ideology more dangerous than communism.” In fact, it was reportedly the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and campaign which ensured the PiS reelection results; aka Duda’s reelection. Ultimately, if you are a Polish citizen, the recent events, the clash of opinions and the rising populist rhetoric have polarized and torn the social fabric of Polish society. Whatever happens next, regardless of the administration’s previous actions, it is imperative to recall that women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. 

All in all, one should be concerned that the PiS, including politicians like Ziobro, will continue to grow stronger, moving further from the European Project of a continent of freedoms and democratic values, and moving closer towards authoritarianism; a route looking all the more popular in a  post-Covid world. 

Isabel Barquin

Research and Analysis Intern