Sylwia Spurek: Putting the world to rights

A staunch defender of human and animal rights, Sylwia Spurek is on a quest to safeguard the dignity of the voiceless and disenfranchised. She tells Lorna Hutchinson that when it comes to upholding rights there is no room for compromise.
Sylwia Spurek at the European Parliament in Strasbourg | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

14 Sep 2020

On her election to the European Parliament in 2019, Sylwia Spurek left behind a 20-year career in human rights, including working as Poland’s Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights and attorney-at-law.

Undoubtedly well placed to comment on the current situation in her native Poland, which prompted Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee to recently adopt a report stating Warsaw was in serious violation of the principles of democracy and human rights, Spurek says that for years “party-fixated selfish attitudes” have caused the rule of law and human rights violations in some EU countries to be swept under the carpet.

“Irrespective of which country is in question – Poland, Hungary, Malta, Slovakia – the Council, the Commission or the European Parliament should act swiftly and consistently. For me, it does not matter whether it is my colleagues from the parliamentary group or anyone else that is in power in these countries, because in the case of human rights there is no room for compromise and the EU should undertake suitable measures immediately and effectively.”

“The fundamental human rights of women and LGBT+ people in Poland have never been fully guaranteed, legally and in practice. The lack of access to legal abortion, the lack of protection for women against domestic violence, hatred against LGBT+ people, the lack of equality in marriage, and the inability for same-sex couples to enter a registered partnership are not just problems from the last five years”

Spurek says that what distinguishes her from many of her peers in the European Parliament is that her career to date has not been connected with party politics, but rather with the human rights struggle.

“For more than twenty years, I have been fighting for women’s rights, working as a Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights, and being involved in human rights activities. By profession I hold a doctoral degree in law and work as an attorney-at-law. That puts me at a distance from the way of thinking in terms of party interests. Wherever a government breaches the rule of law, is implicated in the murder of journalists, looks to take away women’s rights and considers LGBT+ people as public enemies, there is no room for compromise.”

She adds that Article 7 of the Treaty - the procedure for protecting EU values - has unfortunately proven to be ineffective so far. “For the first time in the EU’s history Article 7 was launched against Poland two years ago, in December 2017. In September 2018, Article 7 was launched against Hungary. And what has been the result? Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has for years enjoyed some sort of protection in the EU, even though he persists in destroying civil society, contravening human rights and limiting media freedom. In Poland, the government is infringing the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the media, attacking non-governmental organisations, and violating women’s and LGBT+ people’s rights.”

“Therefore, I believe that only the mechanism of tying EU funds with the rule of law can be effective as both a remedial and preventive measure. It is only when such a scenario is put in place that governments which breach our values will withdraw from their undemocratic practices. Only then will the governments of other countries be wary of going down the path of Poland and Hungary. But all that depends on the Commission, its ability to mobilise itself and its adherence to principles. Because we have waited too long. How much longer can one keep enquiring, monitoring and appealing?”

Asked if the rise of Polish, ultraconservative, Christian-Catholic political organisation Ordo Iuris and its propagation of so-called “family values”, as well as the huge increase in Polish “pro-life” organisations in recent years have contributed to the wholesale violation of LGBTI and women’s rights in Poland, Spurek says unequivocally, “Let’s face it, the fundamental human rights of women and LGBT+ people in Poland have never been fully guaranteed, legally and in practice. The lack of access to legal abortion, the lack of protection for women against domestic violence, hatred against LGBT+ people, the lack of equality in marriage, and the inability for same-sex couples to enter a registered partnership are not just problems from the last five years.”

“They result from failures to act over the past thirty years of the Polish transformation. But the PiS government and organisations backing it are even seeking to take away what women, LGBT+ people and their allies have succeeded in achieving.”

“Wherever a government breaches the rule of law, is implicated in murders of journalists, looks to take away women’s rights and considers LGBT+ people as public enemies, there is no room for compromise”

Spurek suggests that Ordo Iuris, along with many members of the Polish government, right-wing politicians and journalists, “are behaving as though they wanted to bring about a situation where the protection of human rights is associated with an assault on the family.”

The strength of such organisations, she warns, is increasing, and with access to ever-larger finances, their members are infiltrating the country’s public administration, while their leaders are becoming members of the government. “They have unlimited access to government-backed media. Human rights organisations do not possess such vast resources, and nor does the Commissioner for Human Rights, Adam Bodnar, have such capacity to act. For the past five years he has managed to retain full independence, but even he has become helpless in regard to the enormous anti-human rights juggernaut. And what are the Commission and the Council doing about this situation?”

“How do they intend to face up to the rising wave of xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism and racism? Orbán keeps taking over successive media outlets and destroying civil society, while PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski is transferring his political support to organisations such as Ordo Iuris. What is the Commission’s response to that?”

Turning to the conclusions of the recent European Council summit, which saw proposed cuts in the Union’s long-term budget in the crucial areas of health, research, education and the green transition, as well as a significant watering down of the rule of law, Spurek says, “My impression is that rather than debating how to solve problems, European leaders chose to talk about money. Not where to curb the expenditures and where to expand them - in the public interest - but how to spend less or more. I understand those countries that demanded spending cuts, as I can see a great deal of areas where the EU spends taxpayers’ money inefficiently, and often even harmfully. But the cuts are now targeting those sectors that ought to be prioritised because people’s quality of life depends on them.”

The EU’s weaknesses, she admits, are all-too visible, for example in areas such as healthcare. “The health of women and the elderly, particularly in rural regions, should be a priority. Do your readers know that there are places in Poland where women have no access to gynaecological services because no such medical facility exists in their area?”

For several years breast cancer deaths have been on the rise, says Spurek, adding that Polish women have no guaranteed access to anaesthesia while giving birth, and in vitro fertilisation is currently not reimbursed by the state.

“Is this how equality, cohesion and development of the EU should look? Of course, I welcome the fact that the percentage share of the EU’s expenditure on climate policies has been raised to 30 percent, but at the same time we have seen the expenditures on the Just Transformation Fund reduced, and no list exists of the sectors which should not be financed by the EU funds because of the levels of pollution they generate.”

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Spurek adds, “There is still no debate in place regarding a profound reform of the Common Agricultural Policy that exerts a catastrophic impact on the environment, as well as on people’s health and quality of life. The industrial animal farming sector alone is responsible for some 70 percent of greenhouse emissions from European agriculture. There was no mention of it in the recent summit discussions at all.”

A committed vegan, Spurek explains that she adopted a plant-based lifestyle for ethical reasons. “I began reading materials and watching films concerning the fate of animals and how we humans treat, abuse and kill them. I met animal rights activists. I discovered that since my childhood I had been stuck in a matrix, surrounded by propaganda of the meat, dairy and egg industries, and that, instead of thinking critically, I believed in their lie. I kept saying that I loved animals, but, completely irrationally, what I meant was domestic animals, and the fate of the others was irrelevant. I know that is how many people still think and are unable to think critically. I came to understand that a world based on animal abuse is not a moral one. I embarked on my change. Now I perceive veganism in a broader context and my entire social and political activity is linked to it.”

“Twenty years ago, I began my professional and social involvement with the fight for human rights. Now I combine these two realms. I dedicate a lot of attention to industrial animal farming, which is one of the greatest political challenges. That part of European industry - yes, industry, not agriculture - is one of the greatest modern problems. Of course, it’s a huge problem in the context of animal rights. Suffering, narrow cages, pathogens, mass killing – all this not only for food of dubious quality, but also for objectives such as fur or entertainment. And the EU is a generous sponsor of this industry.”

“The second context is people’s health, without which no EU cohesion policy exists. What has been confirmed over the years is that carcinogens are not only present in cigarettes, asbestos and exhaust gases, but also processed meat, such as sausages, bacon or pâté. From 2016-2019, the EU spent a total of €138.7m on campaigns promoting meat and meat products. The third context is the quality of life of the people living in the vicinity of industrial farms, putting up with odours, risk of soil and water contamination, or biodiversity threats. Lastly, the fourth context is the climate. What we eat is political. Our plate is not our private matter, not only because specific foods are financed by public funds, in other words, from our taxes. But at the latest summit putting in place a precise EU system that would allow specifying the prices of products by taking into account the use of limited natural resources or emissions of pollution or greenhouse gases was not considered at all. Such a system should embrace both meat and other animal-derived products. The summit did address the reform of the EU Emissions Trading System, but only with regard to air and sea transport. How about agriculture and industrial animal farming? Why was there no mention of these issues?”

“We need more politicians who want to change the fate of animals, who want to promote veganism as the fair solution – for animals, the climate, and people. We need education because people must open their eyes to see that the picture created by the language of advertising is a lie. They need to have full, reliable knowledge about the environmental and health e­ffects”

Joaquin Phoenix, in his Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech this year, spoke of humans’ entitlement to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby when she gives birth, “even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable.”

Asked if more people would go plant-based if they were fully aware of the enormous amount of suffering that animals endure to put meat and other animal products on people’s plates, Spurek says that a critical approach to the white lies we have been told since our childhood can be the beginning for many people. “But a great deal of people would rather not exit the matrix they’re in because it’s more convenient not to see anything. And the mainstream is made up of people and politicians who believe that keeping animals in tiny cages, without light or fresh air, taking their offspring away from them, mass and mechanical killing are all normal things which fulfil the standards of the civilisation we live in. The mainstream also consists of people who, while drinking their coffee with milk, do not know or refuse to know that their whim (‘oh, because I love coffee with milk’) equals animal suffering.”

Spurek says, “as a matter of principle and consistency, I talk about the rights of animals, I talk about respect for animals, about the fact that we, as people, have no right to exploit or kill animals, I talk about veganism as the only fair way with regard to animals. But animal rights, and in particular veganism, now belong, sadly, to nothing more than the political margins. We need more politicians who want to change the fate of animals, who want to promote veganism as the fair solution – for animals, the climate, and people. We need education because people must open their eyes to see that the picture created by the language of advertising is a lie. They need to have full, reliable knowledge about the environmental and health effects.”

But she argues how can Europeans have access to such reliable knowledge when the EU has spent nearly €140m on promoting meat and dairy over the past few years? “Whenever somebody asks me how I endure hate speech - and I get quite a lot of it every day, for my political fight for the rights of animals - I respond: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. Sometimes, when promoting veganism, I feel like the first suffragettes who, in demanding equal rights for women, were ahead of their time and went beyond the accepted norms in society. Today, veganism in politics is also ahead of its time and does not fit within the narrow lens of how the world is seen. I want to use my time in the European Parliament as best I can. Political leadership is where I can see the beginning of change.”

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - ‘The Poland of 2020 is a hell for women’: MEPs slam Polish abortion ban

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