Poland has made headlines recently by virtually banning abortion, passing municipal anti-LGBT resolutions and even trying to coordinate regional opposition to women’s rights. BIRN takes a closer look at Ordo Iuris, the NGO playing a major role in the recent conservative blitzkrieg.
hen the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture launched its new law school, Collegium Intermarium, in Warsaw in late May, two Polish government ministers were there to make the opening speeches: Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski and Minister of Education Przemyslaw Czarnek.
During the May 28 launch event, both Glinski and Czarnek ceremoniously signed a declaration on the necessity of the Ordo Iuris university: “As we observe the crisis of academic life, there is a need to return to the classical idea of the University,” the text read. “[W]e must not be afraid to refer to the heritage of previous generations, including the foundations of our civilisation – the Roman idea of law, the Greek love of wisdom, and the living legacy of Christian values.”
Speaking to BIRN on the sidelines of the event, Education Minister Czarnek did not shy away from the depiction of the Ordo Iuris university as part of a broader set of changes to the country’s education system that he, as the minister, had been planning.
The symbiosis between the conservative-nationalist governing party of Law and Justice (PiS) and Ordo Iuris clearly apparent during this launch event – although Culture Minister Glinski was careful to stress to the media that Ordo Iuris was a non-governmental, grassroots organisation, not in any way connected to the Polish government – was far from unprecedented.
Last autumn, BIRN reported on how the Polish government was conducting diplomatic efforts in neighbouring countries to rally support for a “family rights treaty”, drawn up by Ordo Iuris among others, which was designed as a replacement for the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence.
Over the past two years, municipal resolutions against what has been called “LGBT ideology”, often proposed by PiS local councillors, were in many cases based on a template that had been drafted by Ordo Iuris.
And, most notoriously, last year’s Constitutional Tribunal ruling that made abortion illegal even in the case of a non-viable pregnancy was also the result of longstanding efforts by this group to ban abortion. Back in 2016, legislation on a total ban on abortion that was pushed by Ordo Iuris failed to pass parliament because of massive protests (called the “Black Protest”). A group of parliamentarians, mostly from PiS, subsequently requested the Constitutional Tribunal rule on the constitutionality of the existing abortion legislation, leading to the 2020 ruling that virtually bans the procedure.
Ordo Iuris has for years been spearheading an effort to roll back women’s and LGBT rights, in the name of what it calls the defence of the “traditional” or “natural” family (which feminists would call “patriarchy”). Among PiS politicians, it has found a sympathetic ear for its ideas, giving it a vehicle on which to reach its goals. Along the way, its conservative messaging has helped the Polish government build a narrative of “resistance to the West”, which Warsaw makes ample use of in its continual confrontation with the EU.
Remigiusz Bak, a policy officer at the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights and one of Europe’s leading experts on the activities of Ordo Iuris, says the organisation is today “at the peak of its power”.
Formally launched in 2013, Ordo Iuris had little more than 20 staff members in 2019 (according to Ordo Iuris’s activity reports), but few following Polish politics hadn’t heard of it.
The conservative legal group’s rise since then has been nothing short of astounding. Its latest financial records boast an annual income of over 6 million Polish zloty (over 1.3 million euros), an amount that’s almost doubled since 2016 alone and dwarfs the petty sums the group had available during its launch year.
“It’s very symbolic that their offices are now in the PAST building in the centre of Warsaw,” Bak says, referring to what was once the highest building in the city that had a key role in the Warsaw Uprising and is today managed by an association of WWII veterans. “It’s a sign of how powerful they have become. They not only have the money to do what they want, they have access to all key institutions and media, and, while initially the Catholic Church distanced itself from them, they are now cooperating.”
So, who exactly is Ordo Iuris and how did they become so influential?
The group’s stated goal is to “promote a legal culture based on respect for human dignity and rights”. However, this should be taken to mean something different than the mainstream international legal understanding of rights: for Ordo Iuris, today’s predominant human rights discourse is a form of “fundamentalism” – an external imposition by Western powers disguising a “Marxist” agenda to destroy the “traditional family” and “natural law” that Ordo Iuris is dedicated to safeguarding.
“A cartel of billionaires and billionaires’ trust-funded NGOs has been trying to rewrite the concept of human rights in order to push a radical socio-constructivist agenda for some time,” Agnieszka Jacob, director of International Relations at Ordo Iuris, tells BIRN in an interview. “Hundreds of millions were invested in the past years to yield influence in politics, media and, what is most alarming, EU institutions. This huge financial and organisational undertaking led to the creation of kind a linguistic and legislative ‘Taka Tuka Land’.”
“The entire debate has gone sour. No one on the left is willing to discuss the traumatic consequences of abortion which affect the lives of millions of women, ranging from post-abortion syndrome to depression, or the well oiled money-printing machine known as the abortion industry,” Jacob says. “None of them is willing to debate the sickening abuse of tissue from aborted babies for frankensteinesque interspecies experiments, i.e., baby scalps transplanted onto rodents or the links of their ideas to eugenics.”
Polish journalist Klementyna Suchanow describes in her 2020 book, This Is War, how Ordo Iuris was founded with the participation of individuals from the Piotr Skarga Association, the Polish representative of the Brazil-originating ultra-Catholic network Tradition, Family, Property (TFP), which has been accused of being a religious sect in several countries. Both Ordo Iuris and the Piotr Skarga Association use the TFP golden lion logo, they cooperate in actions and have some individuals active in both groups.
While Ordo Iuris representatives have acknowledged in the past receiving donations from Piotr Skarga, the group is trying to distance itself from the TFP network and create a separate public profile in Poland – that of an independent legal expert group.
The founding of Ordo Iuris coincided with a time when ultra-conservative groups across Europe began coordinating their goals and strategies in the Agenda Europe structure, with involvement of both US and Russian actors.
The 2016 planning meeting of the network took place in Warsaw, with Ordo Iuris as the host. This coordination explains why pet themes such as restricting abortion, defining marriage as strictly heterosexual or limiting access to sex education crop up time and again in advocacy by conservative groups across the continent, with campaigns in different countries often using the same imagery, language and arguments.
With increased coordination came also money. A report published on May 15 by the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, titled “Tip of the Iceberg”, documents how funding for ultra-conservative groups active in Europe has steadily increased over the last decade. The report’s author, Neil Datta, identifies over 700 million dollars that poured into anti-gender groups in Europe between 2009 and 2018, 11 per cent of that from US sources, 26 per cent from Russian ones, and the rest from Europe.
Ordo Iuris has been adamant that all funds come from individual donations and deny receiving any money from large Russian or American groups. Jacob repeats this line in the interview with BIRN, stressing that the organisation’s budget is derived from individual donations, primarily small ones.
“We are one of the few NGOs in Poland with something like a kind of democratic legitimacy, as we represent the interests of thousands of Polish citizens,” she says. “We are not dependent on billionaire philanthropists or foreign organisations, we depend on making sure that our donors are kept up to date about our extensive activities and see their money is well invested.”
No evidence has yet been made public that Ordo Iuris receives funds from any big US or Russian groups. However, a 2020 international journalistic investigation published in Poland by onet.pl did look more closely into the finances of the Piotr Skarga Association, which detailed the group’s extremely lucrative model of financing based on sending religious paraphernalia to people signing petitions and asking them to donate. This has enabled the group to finance partners around the Central and Eastern European region and even on other continents.
Back in 2015, when PiS came to power in Poland, Ordo Iuris was already well established within European and international ultra-conservative networks, with which it was refining its goals and tactics. Conservative messages anyway resonate in Polish society, where Catholicism is still very influential and the Church is conservative, but a government like PiS offered significant opportunities for further growth.
PiS has from the start run on a platform mixing nationalism and anti-Western discourse with pro-family, pro-social policies. This matched very well with Ordo Iuris’s principal agenda of protecting the “traditional family”. When the refugee crisis was over and PiS needed a new scapegoat, the anti-LGBT discourse produced by ultra-conservatives came in very handy: analysis by activists in the Atlas of Hate collective indicates that the anti-LGBT municipal resolutions were actively used by PiS politicians during election campaigning.
Not only did PiS open a wider space in the Polish public debate for Ordo Iuris themes, but it also made room for its people in government structures. Aleksander Stepkowski, one of the founders of Ordo Iuris and its first president, was an undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the first PiS government. He is currently a spokesman for the Polish Supreme Court.
Remigiusz Bak lists a series of other individuals closely cooperating with Ordo Iuris who have positions in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Family and Social Policy.
While Ordo Iuris has not been proven to directly benefit from state funds (unlike its peers in Hungary), recent reporting by OKO.press has highlighted the role of Tymoteusz Zych, the vice-president of Ordo Iuris, on the board of the National Freedom Institute, a state body that finances NGOs.
According to the investigation, the National Freedom Institute gave grants to groups whose activity can be linked to Ordo Iuris. The group also seems to attract the interest of wealthy individuals in Poland: according to another OKO.press report, one of the funders of Collegium Intermarium is PZW Investments Limited Liability Company, founded by Pawel Witaszek, formerly vice president of a major Polish mineral water producer.
While its influence has grown domestically, including in governmental ranks, Ordo Iuris is also gradually positioning itself as the most influential ultra-conservative group among its CEE peers, reportedly founding and financing groups abroad, giving ideas for actions, and coordinating international efforts.
“I would say we are probably one of the opinion leaders in the region,” Jacob claims. “Maybe it’s because most of us are lawyers, we know how law review techniques work and are certainly not shy to apply them. We generate tangible results, and people notice that also outside of Poland.”
Bak attributes the group’s increasingly important role in the region to it being “fervently ideological”, unlike the French branch of TFP, “which is mostly a money-making machine”.
“The people leading Ordo Iuris today are the generation born in the 90s, they are young and active. And they popped up in the middle of a vacuum, when Christian forces in Europe were weak, so whoever would try to provide leadership in this context, they would be followed,” he explains.
“But the money is important too,” Bak adds, referring to Ordo Iuris as one of the best-funded groups in the region. “And the fact that the government plays their game, this is their most powerful tool.”
Bak explains that Ordo Iuris has a big interest in Poland and Hungary resisting Brussels’ authority, because they want to limit the legal influence of the EU in Poland in order to reshape the legal landscape at home as they see fit. On the other hand, the illiberal governments in the region have been increasingly making use of the ultra-conservative agenda in their attempts to build up a CEE bloc capable of resisting inconvenient EU policies over pluralism.
The EU taking a tough line on upholding the rule of law in places like Poland would be hugely important in containing the influence of the ultra-conservative movement, argues Bak.
“Ordo Iuris would never be able to infiltrate state structures if the rule of law was not compromised. This is in fact a story about the collapse of state institutions that can no longer defend themselves against ultra-conservative organisations,” he says.