Adam Bodnar, a Polish lawyer who heads the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland, has won this year’s Rafto Prize. The prize also goes to the institution itself, with both it and Bodnar cited for their role as “defenders of minority rights and judicial independence in Poland.”
Bodnar, age 41, was appointed Ombudsman, or Commissioner for Human Rights, in Poland just three years ago. Since Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) won the Polish election that same year, though, it has moved to reduce the independence of Poland’s courts and centralize state power. That has put both Bodnar and his staff under tremendous pressure, with Bodnar becoming what the Rafto jury calls “a significant advocate of democracy, defender of minorities and fundamental human rights.”
As Poland’s government acts to control state media and put severe limits on freedom of information and political lobbying, Bodnar has continued to highlight the crucial role of the insitution he heads. Its very existence is threatened, and one of the government’s newly appointed supreme court justices has sought to remove Bodnar from his position. The Polish government also has severely cut the budget for the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights.
Bodnar claimed that the Rafto Prize was “not just an award to my work and the institution,” but mostly a sign of “support to the entire Polish civil society, academia, judges and lawyers fighting for the rule of law, judicial independence, pluralism and protection of minorities in Poland.”
Lise Rakner, leader of the committee awarding the Rafto Prize, said Bodnar won “because he leads the only institution in Poland that fights for human rights in a situation where the rule of law is under attack.” Rakner noted that Poland was in the process of imposing strong political control and setting aside power sharing and the independence of the courts. “Bodnar and his institution have an important and very difficult job,” she said.
Bent Hagtvet, a professor of political science at the University of Oslo, hailed the award to Bodnar as “exemplary and important. What’s happening in Poland is very serious,” Hagtvet said.
The Rafto Prize, which will be awarded to Bodnar in Bergen in November, carries a cash award of USD 20,000. Since Bodnar is a civil servant, he can’t accept the prize money, so the Rafto Foundation will instead identify and donate the prize money to civil society working for human rights in Poland.
The prize, named for the late Norwegian professor Thorolf Rafto, has been awarded to human rights defenders every year since 1987. It’s meant to aid the fight against oppression, shed light on human rights violations and recognize human rights defenders “who deserve the world’s attention.”