“Most of the time I am not even here,” says Adam Bodnar, Poland’s commissioner for human rights, gesturing around his light-filled office in a historical building near Warsaw’s Old Town. On the map of Poland near his desk, all the towns that he has visited since he started the job in 2015 are marked with pins; he has covered about 80,000km. “To defend democracy in these tough times, people need to leave their comfort zone.”
Poland is drifting in an illiberal direction. Since coming to power in 2015, the right-wing Law and Justice party has strengthened its grip on the state media and the judiciary, and is embroiled in a protracted conflict with the EU for undermining the rule of law. There has also been a surge of intolerant rhetoric from right-wing groups and media outlets, especially regarding refugees, who are often presented as a threat to national security. The government, meanwhile, has only emboldened this rhetoric by keeping silent on it.
Throughout these shifts Bodnar has been a staunch defender of civil debate and the constitution. A lawyer by training, his job is to monitor citizens’ rights and defend them whenever they are violated. From television appearances in the morning to meetings with public figures and ngos around the country, he can cover topics such as women’s rights, surveillance, air pollution, patients’ rights and logging over the course of a single day.
Bodnar prefers a personable approach in his work. “I like to ‘feel’ a problem,” he says. He strives to meet the victims of hate crimes in person, such as an Iranian man whose nearby café was attacked earlier this year. “We aim to reach victims directly so that they feel that there is a state representative who takes them seriously.”
The day before our meeting, Bodnar was in parliament speaking out against a law that would strengthen the government’s grip on the supreme court. But human rights remains the core of his work. “I’m trying to stop a wave that is going in the opposite direction,” he says. He would like Poland to be a “stable democracy within the EU”. Thinking of his three young sons, he adds, “I want it to be a country that my children will not want to leave.”
Poland’s fix list:
1. Protect the judiciary
2. Ensure the constitution is respected
3. The public broadcaster must be more that just a mouthpiece
South Korea’s self-proclaimed “president for everyone” Moon Jae-in intends to break with the regal reclusiveness of the last administration. He’s swapping presidential compound the Blue House for a government complex closer to the centre of Seoul. His predecessor Park Geun-hye stayed locked away in the former for much of her term but Moon intends to improve public access.
Give and take
The Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) is set for implementation on 21 September.
1. Untapped markets will open up
2. Should boost GDPs
3. EU firms may arrive in Canada
1. Possible wage decline
2. Chance of job losses
3. Industry protections vulnerable
A “treaty for the people”? To set a standard it must be exactly that.