Human rights 2035: five challenges and five signposts. Speech delivered by the Commissioner at the third National Congress on Human Rights
I am concerned that the whole political and media discourse is currently swamped with personal attacks, “news of the day” coming from political parties, scandals, mutual allegations, everyday ping-pong between several political groups. Such ping-pong rarely leads to anything good as far as the shaping of our future is concerned.
This is not what politics should be about. This is not what the mission of ruling a country should be about.
We are about to face profound civilization challenges.
It is up to us to decide how we are going to approach them. It is up to us to create a strategy of further development for our country and the continent.
Because politics equals responsibility. Yet, serious problems and challenges which, in the future, will affect our everyday life are omitted from the political discourse.
As a state we fail to hold strategic debates, to establish crisis panels, and look for solutions for the imminent, profound threats.
We are merely looking for solutions to safeguard our well-being "here and now" as later "it will somehow work", "we cannot be bothered what happens once we are gone" or "we let our successors worry about the future".
Therefore today, on behalf of citizens, I take the liberty to remind politicians - persons responsible for managing this country: challenges and your tasks lie elsewhere. Not in a TV studio. Not in the next election campaign. But in the perspective of the next 15-20 years. And in the action plan for those next 15-20 years.
The citizens of this country have the right to expect its politicians to fulfil the task that has been entrusted to them: to ensure safety to the people and to the country. And this safety - as was discussed during the Congress - is threatened by a range of significant phenomena.
The climate crisis which is not a distant problem of oceans and foreign UN speakers but already affects the health of our children, our nature and our life expectancy.
The inevitable demographic changes that will soon pose a great challenge to millions of Poles who will have to face the problem of old-age loneliness or of providing assistance to elderly parents for whom the state fails to offer any solutions (or ones that fail to meet the current standards of human rights).
It is a challenge of conducting a dialogue between generations.
We have the right to clean air.
We have the right to dignity in old age.
We have the right to healthcare.
We have the right to education.
These are not rights reserved for voters of any specific party. There are no disputes, no arguments about it. These are the rights of all of us. And they are more significant than everyday squabbles. Today we all, irrespective of our political persuasion, breathe air of appalling quality. Getting older is unavoidable. We all care about providing good education to our children and grandchildren.
We all need to get together and do something about it.
Media may also play a huge role in that. Climate and demography rarely make it to the headlines in this day and age. Neither does the threat resulting from rapid technological development. Sometimes, what is considered newsworthy escapes our memory completely after 2-3 days.
But the planet keeps changing.
I would like to use a clichéd example to illustrate the problem we are currently facing.
Probably everyone has had some renovation works done at home. When we hire a renovation team we expect that its manager will have some plan. He will plan the works in such a way to overcome the challenges, to keep the budget in check; he will design the layout of the interior space and will perform the works so as to achieve a desirable effect at the end.
Precisely like this.
The same should be expected of leaders. Politicians. Civil servants. People whose work consists in ensuring that citizens have the right to decent life.
Do we feel that today anyone is following any plan? For 2030, 2035, or for 2050?
Having listened to recent comments of those people, certainly not.
2035 is not, as it may seem, a very distant perspective. Already now we have to reflect on how the reality will be changing, what developmental trends we will witness.
It is worth considering what we were doing 15 years ago, in 2004? Probably it will turn out that all of us can recollect some events from that year, and 15 years ago may seem like "yesterday".
Let us imagine the upcoming 15 years. What challenges are we facing?
I can see 5 challenges and 5 signposts that may help us get prepared for this difficult journey.
It is my perspective. Resulting from my work in the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, from my talks with you here, as well as consideration of complaints filed by citizens.
Maybe it is the right perspective, maybe not. You may see things differently. But I urge you: stop thinking in terms of "here and now".
Let us look into the future, into the next 15 years.
Let us consider the challenges we are facing and how we can overcome them.
Let us think how the Constitution and human rights standards may help us.
Climate change is a scientific fact.
It is hardly disputable when we see drought-stricken Victoria Falls or melting glaciers. Rising average temperature on the planet will entail social changes, threat to life and health as well as mass migrations. Prof. Philip Alston, special UN rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, who is a guest at the Congress, presented the view that we will be more and more affected by the so called climate apartheid - excluding poorer residents of the planet from the possibility to avoid the consequences of climate change. As the wealthy will have various means to cope with the crisis.
Climate change will, therefore, affect not only our discussions on the rights of humans to clean environment but even on their right to survive. This is also part of our responsibility for future generations.
Let us think on what future awaits us. Will there be blackouts in Poland? Will Łódzkie Voivodeship be affected by the shortage of water? Will hurricanes become a frequent occurrence and damage Polish forests, just like in Rytel?
New technologies make our life easier and they contribute to civilizational development
Algorithms and artificial intelligence are entering our everyday lives. In the context of human rights, new technologies also bring threats: ones originating from the systems of the state and of large corporations.
Simplified communication and consumer choices lead us into temptation. We are sharing our data, we are losing control over it and, at the same time, we are subject to ever-increasing manipulation.
The question arises whether we are able to stop, whether the development of "supervised society" is a one-way road. As long as we are not aware of the threats stemming from the increasing control over our lives, we create room for the restriction of rights, political freedoms and conscious choices.
Or maybe in a couple of years - just like China - we will have a system of points collected by citizens over their lifetime, thanks to which the most deserving ones will have access to better schools and work.
Or maybe we will build towers - just like in Hong Kong - which will make it possible to perform biometric identification of all city residents, including demonstration participants?
Or maybe following Russia's example, we will establish sovereign Internet, our own, Polish, patriotic and national Internet and we will impose on Internet providers the obligation to install special overlays allowing for controlling our activity and blocking pages?
Demographic problems are bound to escalate due to the aging of European societies
Life expectancy is on the rise, which naturally is not bad news. Yet, we ask whether old age will be a joyous period for everyone? Will we be able to solve the problems associated with ensuring decent care for the elderly or with the frustration stemming from low pension benefits (especially in case of the lack of comprehensive system reform).
Will economic migration and open borders result in the disappearance of bonds and intergenerational solidarity?
As a consequence of the aging society, more expenditure will need to be allocated to healthcare and nursing services. At the same time, social expectations, resulting from medical advancements, will be on the rise. Since, if medicine can offer a certain solution, why would it not be provided by the state?
And lastly, the last challenge concerns the consequences of migration - gradual creation of a multicultural society in Poland and possible social conflicts motivated by multicultural nature of the country in the face of an economic crisis. Is our society ready for that?
Will we experience the problem of suicides among seniors, just like Japan and South Korea?
Or maybe what awaits us is a rebellion of young people refusing to finance costly surgeries on older citizens?
We can see a constantly increasing gap between the world of the young and the world of the elderly, which affects the level of understanding of democratic values
That gap may be attributed to different generational and historical experiences but also different methods of using media, the Internet and communicating. Several sessions during the Congress were devoted to the issue.
As a result, we observe a crisis of authority and insufficient understanding of the significance of citizenship in terms of a membership in a political community. We do not pay attention to what may seem obvious to us, just like we do not notice air when we are breathing it. This dissonance may bring about a threat for democracy; affect the emotional nature of everyday politics as well as the rise of xenophobic and nationalistic attitudes and populist movements.
This was discussed by Olga Tokarczuk in her Nobel Lecture: "Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up some quieter melody, even the weakest beat. The famous Shakespeare quote has never been a better fit than it is for this cacophonous new reality: more and more often, the Internet is the tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury".
Democracy, human rights and the rule of law have constituted - since the WW2 - the triad defining the development of countries in the Euro-Atlantic area.
Yet, nowadays in Poland we are experiencing a crisis of the rule of law. It is not going to end soon. It will keep shaping our reality for many years to come because of the already implemented changes but also because of the low legal awareness of the society.
It will result in the increased threat of corruption and waste of our development opportunities. It will also give rise to increasing sense of injustice and the threat for the rights of minorities.
As indicated by researchers from IDEA still 43% of countries worldwide are affected by a high level of corruption. Do we want to join them or do we want to be like Norway, Sweden, Denmark or the Netherlands - countries with the highest level of the rule of law?
We need to continuously nurture that plant of trust in the law, state and institutions. If we fail to protect it from weeds and excessive light, instead of transforming into a monumental oak it will just wither away.
In light of those challenges we may ask what we can do and what our cure for Poland is.
In my view, we are not able to prevent all changes from happening. We are not able to predict everything in detail. But what we can do is to be well aware of social and political trends and assume responsibility.
We may shape the debate in Poland and beyond. What is more, we may be the leaders of change all over the globe. Nobody would be able to ask us later "where was Poland when...": where were we when...". To achieve that we need signposts that will guide us and help us develop tools and solve problems.
First signpost: trust in competencies, knowledge and science
It is from Poland that such outstanding individuals as Nicolaus Copernicus, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, Rafał Lemkin originated from. Poland is also the home country of Olga Malinkiewicz who discovered peroskvites and invented a method for using them to generate solar energy.
We should appreciate the significance of science, education and the ability to diagnose and solve social, health, demographic as well as legal problems. Let us not be deceived by pseudo-science. Let us not be deceived by those who dismiss the significance of the number of written articles, books, quotations. Without science we are not able to take rational, strategic and well thought-out decisions.
We need to strive to reconcile the world of science with the world of politics. We need to hold politicians accountable for their knowledge of facts, using expert know-how or building competence base for their activities.
What do we do when we have a toothache? We do not go to the blacksmith. Let us trust scientists. Let us respect their work and what they have to say.
Second signpost: sense of community
The Constitution of the Republic of Poland states that Poland is a joint good of all citizens. European Treaties, on the other hand, state that the European Union is a community of citizens of EU member states.
Caring for the joint good entails diligence in the realization of the public interest but also respect for the sustainable development principle. This translates into specific civilization challenges.
Population aging constitutes a challenge for the young generation in terms of ensuring and financing proper care and social security.
Without a sense of community it is difficult to build acceptance for diversity, resulting from the development of the society, various models of life and migration. Without a sense of community it is not possible to create equal chances of development for everybody, irrespective of where they were born. A sense of community also creates an area for the development of a civic society as well as for looking for solutions to specific problems using bottom-up social energy.
The participants of this Congress are the best proof showing how much the state owes to its citizens.
The biggest civic celebration in Poland is the Finale of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. According to CBOS 83% citizens trust the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. Is it not the best illustration showing why the community sprit as well as the activity of the civic society plays such a profound role?
Third signpost: European integration
Poland is not able to cope with global problems on its own. Poland should not only fulfil the requirements, implement recommendations and European law but also set the tone in discussions held in the EU and all over the world.
We have the right people and potential. It all depends solely on us and our leaders.
As an example, Polish "Solidarity" heritage may transform into "climate solidarity" agenda, as Lech Wałęsa argued for recently in Gdańsk.
Poland needs to cooperate with neighbours; follow European interest and not national egoism. Concurrently, Poland may expect the same from other member states.
European integration is also manifested by attention given to transatlantic relationships and efforts to make the alliance that has existed since WW2 focus on democracy and human rights. The major global threats for human rights can be located in imperial ambitions of China.
Therefore, we have to say: Do not ask what the European Union can do for you. Ask what you can do for the Union.
Fourth signpost: serving the state
It means appreciating the institutions and authorities, focusing on the development of the competencies of civil servants as well as highlighting the significance of personal decisions to serve the state and the homeland throughout one’s life, and taking an oath to follow the Constitution.
But it also entails a modern spirit of patriotism: serving the state through daily work, and realizing the public mission - as a teacher, civil servant, policeman, diplomat, special services officer, prosecutor or judge.
Serving the state also requires listening to its citizens and developing modern mechanisms of democratic participation. At the same time it means a strong state and a strong European Union, which, owing to their civil servants can effectively counteract global interests of huge corporations.
There is no other way.
In order to make us understand how significant but also underrated public service is, I would like to quote a fragment of an interview with Mariusz Krasoń, a prosecutor, for the "Duży Format" magazine.
"I am a prosecutor, not a politician, I chose this profession as it clearly states my tasks: I am supposed to be on the side of the victim. […] It […] is a bloody difficult job. Just imagine that you have a four-year-old daughter and you are going to see a child of the same age. Her father smashed her head with a hammer and you are supposed to carry out a visual inspection and attend the post-mortem. The police, in crisis situations, may use the help of a psychologist but such assistance is not provided to prosecutors. Some of us cope by practicing sport, some drink alcohol. Alcohol abuse, depression, shattered relationships - this is our world. Sometimes people say that we are devoid of feelings, we act like robots. But there is no other way. Once I inspected a site of an accident in which a family of four died. I look into the car, I hear a phone ringing. I touch my pockets, no, it is not mine, it is the driver's phone. I felt like my legs turned to jelly. Therefore, if you need to perform a task you need to act automatically. Later, in the privacy of your home, you may show weakness".
Fifth signpost: education
It is the best investment in the future, the best way to show that we care about the future generations and their well-being.
Education is an investment in social capital and the method of nurturing new generations of mature citizens who will be able to assume responsibility for the shape of the community - local, national, European and global one.
Education is also a method for opposing populism and eliminating inequalities in the society as well as gaining acceptance for multi-cultural society. If we need any validation for the theses presented above, let us look who is forming the government in Finland - a country serving as a model in terms of its education system. It is not a coincidence that the 34-year-old Sanna Marin comes from Finland.
2035 is not a distant future.
If we waste the upcoming 15 years on daily political battles and personal attacks we may reach a point of no return when it comes to the rise of authoritarian movements, forces of global corporations, application of new technologies for controlling our lives or climate change.
Human rights cannot be discussed in separation from social and political life.
The doctrine of human rights fails to offer ready-made solutions. Those solutions depend on the politics.
Yet, looking at the politics from the point of view of development challenges shows that human rights and constitutional values may prove useful.
In this complicated and hardly graspable world, mentioned by Olga Tokarczuk in her Nobel Prize speech, they may act as a guiding light or a benchmark, provided that we really take them seriously and consider how they affect our lives.
The signposts that I indicated may help us find the way on that difficult journey of facing civilization challenges.
I appeal to politicians, not from the current or the former governments, which I want to explicitly stress, but to all politicians, as the problem of the lack of a strategic approach has been visible in Poland for many years.
I urge presidential candidates, those who attended the Congress on Civil Rights in person and those who were represented by their delegates.
Think about civilization challenges facing Poland.
Let us look into the future. Let us see what is really important. And let us get ready for what is coming.
Before it gets too late.
Adam Bodnar, Ph.D.
Commissioner for Human Rights
3th National Congress of Human Rights