By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Poland is under international pressure to allow activists to demonstrate freely at December's U.N. climate change talks, and protect participants' privacy, after legislation passed in January sparked fears over civil rights.
The act forbids spontaneous protests in the city of Katowice during the talks, and allows police to collect personal data on delegates without their consent, says Human Rights Watch (HRW).
International green groups and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sent letters to the U.N. climate change body and the bureau of the Aarhus Convention - which guarantees public participation in environmental decisions - warning civil rights could be infringed if the law is followed.
Last month, 116 civil society groups and individuals - many representing indigenous people and women in developing nations - signed a statement saying "environmental defenders" attending the talks face "great risks, barriers and restrictions in ... protesting against policies that accelerate climate change".
"We are concerned that the climate negotiations will be a farce if they are conducted in this atmosphere of fear, threat and intimidation," the statement added.
Poland's Ministry of the Environment told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email that the main objective of its presidency of the Dec. 3-14 talks was "to ensure a transparent, equal and inclusive, impartially managed negotiation process".
"The role of non-governmental partners in this process is extremely important and should be further empowered," it said.
The Polish government is committed to maintaining "a continuous and open dialogue" with organisations involved in the U.N. climate process, it added.
HRW, which first flagged the legal risks in February, has requested the support of U.N. human rights experts, who are expected to write to Warsaw in the coming days, asking for reassurance.
In a March 26 letter to John Knox, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, HRW expressed its concern about restrictions on demonstrations, and police powers to collect personal data on participants at the conference without their knowledge or judicial oversight.
"We are concerned that these measures could be used to spy on environmental activists and indigenous leaders participating in (the conference)," the letter said.
The Polish environment ministry said by email the act allows police to gather data on "persons posing a threat to public safety and order", and defines the scope and method of processing the information.
The ministry added that the act specifies a ban only on participating in "spontaneous assemblies" in Katowice from Nov. 26 to Dec. 16, but does not impose any restrictions on holding meetings where advance notification is provided.
The ban had been recommended by "authorities tasked with analysing security threats", and is intended to ensure the safety of participants in the conference and organised demonstrations, as well as the residents of Katowice, it noted.
HRW researcher Katharina Rall said activists needed to be able to respond to twists and turns in the negotiations at short notice.
The law, as it stands, raises "a risk for clashes or potentially criminalisation of those activists", she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It's not clear to me why these measures are necessary," she added. "At this stage ... there is no reason to believe that there would be heightened security risks for participants if they were holding demonstrations."
U.N. rapporteur Knox noted that, in general under international human rights law, "blanket prohibitions on protests are strongly disfavoured and generally unjustifiable".
Poland's environment ministry said it planned to meet regularly with Polish NGOs to provide full access to information on preparations for the COP24 summit, and would ask them to help foreign groups register requests for demonstrations.
Climate change and rights activists said they were most worried about the legal provision enabling police to collect and process personal data - and where it could end up.
Knox, also a professor at North Carolina's Wake Forest University School of Law, said he could not comment directly on the Polish law, but noted many environmental activists face danger in carrying out their work around the world.
"Environmentalists are understandably concerned about the prospect of information about their participation in meetings like this being obtained and then used in ways that they can't anticipate and understand," he said in an interview.
The bureau of the Aarhus Convention said it was awaiting a response to a letter sent to the Polish environment minister in mid-March requesting information on how the government plans to implement the law in the light of its membership of the pact.
The convention grants rights to the public - and imposes obligations on member governments, which include Poland - regarding access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.
Representatives of the Polish government and the U.N. climate change secretariat will be invited to discuss plans for COP24 at a special session in June on promoting the convention's principles at international forums, its secretary said.
The U.N. climate change secretariat did not respond to requests for comment.
Polish campaigners on climate change said the new law was in keeping with wider government moves to curb civil society.
"I understand the surprise on the international side, but from the Polish perspective, it's nothing new," said Bohdan Pekacki, programme director for Greenpeace Poland.
HRW said last October that since taking power in 2015, Poland's right-wing Law and Justice Party had sought to introduce laws and policies with "serious, negative implications for human rights and the rule of law".
Urszula Stefanowicz of the Polish Ecological Club Mazovian Branch, which coordinates Polish groups acting on climate change, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was unlikely Warsaw would roll back the new law on the climate talks.
"I think the only way to influence this now is international pressure - even then, I am not sure if they will change the regulation, but they may modify the way they will implement it, to make it less problematic," she said.
"We will not be discouraged from action with this regulation," she added.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Alex Whiting. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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