Katowice — Poland's deputy environment minister, Michal Kurtyka, said on Saturday he was in contact with the authorities over reports from campaign groups that at least 12 to 14 activists were refused entry to the country or deported while on their way to a U.N. climate change conference in Katowice.
Human rights experts said the reported barring of activists contradicted the spirit of the 2015 Paris Agreement on global warming which entrenches the principle of public participation in climate action.
"There is a commitment to allow everybody who wishes to engage constructively in this discussion, to be part of it," said Kurtyka, who is presiding over the negotiations, as demonstrators marched through the city streets demanding stronger efforts to tackle climate change.
"It is important that all the rules are being respected in a very constructive way," he told journalists.
He did not confirm the reports about activists issued on Friday evening by international campaign groups 350.org and Climate Action Network International.
U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa said her office was trying to clarify information about the cases.
Green groups said those barred from Poland included people from Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.
"We are hopeful and grateful for efforts by the Polish authorities to address this situation and ensure we can continue into the next week in the most inclusive atmosphere," Espinosa said.
A spokeswoman for the Polish presidency of the talks told Reuters some activists had been denied entry to Poland because they did not meet requirements or were on a list preventing them from entering Europe's border-control-free Schengen Area.
A Polish border guard spokeswoman said 161 people had been forbidden entry to Poland on Friday for many reasons, including a lack of correct documents and being on security lists.
She could not immediately say whether there was any connection to the climate talks in Katowice.
Earlier this year, Poland came under international pressure to allow activists to demonstrate freely at the U.N. climate change talks, and to protect participants' privacy, after new legislation passed in January sparked fears over civil rights.
That legislation forbids spontaneous protests in Katowice during the talks, and allows police to collect personal data on delegates without their consent, according to Human Rights Watch.
UNDERMINING PARIS ACCORD
May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that activists who wanted to come to Poland to help create solutions to climate change were being intimidated, detracting from the talks' main purpose of stepping up ambition to tackle global warming.
She urged the United Nations to put in place conditions at the talks "where activists can come and be safe and do their work, and ... civil society can push government to do what we really need around climate."
Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, said the situation was "a total undermining of the Paris Agreement", which calls for public participation to be enhanced and supported.
But the problem was wider, and included difficulties in enabling citizens around the world to take part in developing their countries' climate action plans, she said.
"If people are not allowed to participate here in Poland, and also at the national level, then we are really losing a lot of significant contributions and actions from those who have committed themselves to do something about the climate change crisis we are facing," she said.
Svitlana Romanko, regional coordinator for 350.org in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, said her group did not know the whereabouts of two Ukrainian NGO workers who had been in Katowice for a week at the talks, following a police check on their papers on Saturday morning.
"It is humiliating for civil society observers, (who are) peaceful, to be treated like that," she said.
Yeb Sano, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, who completed a 1,500-km (932-mile) "pilgrimage" on foot from the Vatican to Katowice to raise awareness about climate change, said he and his fellow walkers had not experienced problems at the Polish border.
But all climate activists face threats to their civil rights as part of their mission, he added.
"I pay tribute to those ... who despite those risks continue to stand up for what is right," said Sano, a former climate negotiator for the Philippines.
- Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; additional reporting by Anna Koper. editing by Laurie Goering