If you had walked towards the Radcliffe Camera on Sunday evening, you would be greeted with the slowly growing chants of enraged students.
There’d be a moment just before emerging into Radcliffe Square, where you would strain to listen to the voices until they became clearer, and see the candles held by students dressed in the black of mourning, surrounding the library.
On Sunday night, a protest organised by the Oxford University Polish Society saw calls for solidarity with women whose rights came under attack following the country’s Constitutional Tribunal’s recent ruling which has essentially removed all avenues to abortion: “Oksword, Warszawa – wspólna sprawa” (Oxford, Warsaw – shared problem).
Calls of “Precz z Kaczorem” (‘away with Kaczyński’) could also be heard, expressing anger at the Law and Justice party (PiS) and its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński.
This most recent ruling is not the first time that PiS government has been accused of undermining women’s and human rights and, as the European Commission’s September 2020 rule of law report states (since “concerns over independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal” remain unsolved), the integrity of Poland’s courts.
The ruling party first attempted to limit abortion rights in 2016, prompting the so-called “Women’s Strike” where Poles took to the streets wearing black. Now, critics of the government have suggested that the near-total ban on abortion is the consequence of politically-motivated appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal where, of the 15 judges currently residing on the court, only one was not appointed by PiS; this being the same court which passed Thursday’s ruling.
The protest was attended by around 60 to 70 students, wearing face masks, who surrounded the Radcliffe Camera with signs and candles, as if standing vigil. The event drew a small counter-protest of some five or six members, but as the energy of the protestors grew with each chant, the counter-protestors dispersed after approximately half an hour.
Speaking to The Oxford Blue, the President of the Polish Society, Szymon Gorczyca, told me of the solidarity that these students feel with those who have taken to the streets in recent days within Poland and been subject to police aggression. He expressed the apprehension with which he and other members of the society are watching the degradation of European values and the move towards the dominance of the church within the Polish state.
The voices of students and academics at prestigious universities such as Oxford, Gorczyca hopes, would be respected by Polish officials and thus make a difference.
An open letter set up by the Cambridge University Polish Society is also gathering signatures from students, alumni and members of international educational institutions to express “disappointment and disbelief” at the ruling and to “raise a serious concern with regards to the state of human rights in Poland”.
The protest took place between 8 pm and 9 pm on Sunday evening, with a moment of silence being held shortly before the demonstration dispersed.