Advocating for human rights since 1989 


The establishment of the Foundation was preceded by the activity of the Helsinki Committee in Poland, created in 1982 during the Martial Law. It was an underground organization that was building a network of associates in Poland and abroad. In mid-1989, the Committee members decided to take advantage of the emerging possibility of formalizing their efforts and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights came into being through a notarial act.


Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights was officially registered in court in January 1990. Its founding document was signed by: Piotr Ł.J. Andrzejewski, Halina Bortnowska-Dąbrowska, Jerzy Ciemniewski, Janusz Grzelak, Jarosław Kaczyński, Marek Antoni Nowicki, Danuta Przywara, Jan Rosner, Stefan Starczewski, Zofia Wasilkowska and Tadeusz Zieliński.

From the very beginning, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights was developing various educational and monitoring programs.

The 1990s: new law with respect for the rights and education 

In the 1990s, the experts of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights got involved in creating new laws and shaping the judicial system. They participated in actions such as the preparation of the legal basis of the asylum system in Poland, work on the new constitution (especially the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), and preparation of the act on the police, special forces or the prison system, as well as the vetting process.

At that time, the first educational projects addressed to the general public (including publicist programmes and educational films), as well as workshops such as the flagship International School of Human Rights, seminars and conferences devoted to human rights and their protection. 

Simultaneously, educational activity abroad was expanded, which consisted of projects such as International Advanced Course on Human Rights Protection and training on effective acting in the public interest. To this day we continue our activities in and for the post-Soviet state - now with the graduates of the training programmes organised in the past years.

Dalai Lama's visit to Poland

In 1993 and 2000 the staff of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights organized the first two visits of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. During the visit, His Holiness met with, for instance, President Lech Wałęsa and other oppositionists. Since then, we have been running an educational-monitoring programme devoted to the situation in Tibet. 

Legal programmes

In the early 1990s, the first legal programmes were established at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights - providing free legal assistance to people whose rights have been violated, including, the Legal Aid Programme for Refugees and Migrants.

These programmes continue to operate today: 

  • Since 2004, under the Precedent Rights Programme, the Foundation has been engaged in strategic litigation, i.e. cases where court decisions are of public interest and may lead to a change in practice or even law that violates individual freedoms or rights, the implementation of a specific international or constitutional standard, and drawing the attention of public opinion and the authorities to a specific, relevant problem. 
  • Under the Legal Intervention Programme, our lawyers provide legal advice, prepare friend-of-the-court briefs and participate in legal proceedings on behalf of individuals whose rights or freedoms have been violated.
  • The HFHR constantly monitors the legislative process from the perspective of human rights protection, submits comments and opinions on draft laws, participates in public hearings and the work of parliamentary committees, and prepares reports on the current situation using international procedures, including those of the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

International Film Festival WATCH DOCS. Human Rights in Film 

The first edition of the WATCH DOCS International Film Festival took place in 2001. Human Rights in Film. WATCH DOCS is now one of the world's largest human rights film events, presenting documentaries in which a commitment to individual rights is combined with the art of filmmaking. Over 50 world-class films are screened at the festival each year.