Tag Archives: human rights

U.S. State Department comes to the aid of the beleaguered regional press in Hungary

On November 9 a highly unusual announcement appeared on the website of the U.S. State Department. The Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announced a “funding opportunity” for the support of “objective media in Hungary.” DRL supports “those persons who long to live in freedom and under democratic governments that protect universally accepted human rights.” DRL is normally not involved with European countries, especially those that are members of the European Union and are supposedly developed countries with the necessary set of democratic institutions.

DRL’s goal in this case is to support media outlets operating outside the capital of Hungary “to produce fact-based reporting and increase their audience and economic sustainability…. The program should improve the quality of local traditional and online media and increase the public’s access to reliable and unbiased information. Projects should aim to have impact that leads to democratic reforms.”

This was such stunning news that even the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade was unable to respond. The grant of 200 million forints or $700,000 means that the United States no longer considers Hungary a democratic country where the free flow of information can be taken for granted. Earlier, when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires David J. Kostelancik delivered a tough speech at the headquarters of the National Association of Hungarian Journalists, both Tamás Menczer, foreign ministry spokesman, and Levente Magyar, its undersecretary, were outraged and complained about interference in Hungary’s domestic affairs. But when 444.hu, the internet news site that discovered the item on the website of the State Department, asked the foreign ministry for its reaction, it got the following brief answer: “Unusual step; we are studying its aim and goal; for the time being we have no comment.”

The fact that the grant specifically targets the countryside means that the Americans are well informed on the state of the Hungarian media. While the print editions of the two independent countrywide daily newspapers, Népszava and Magyar Nemzet, reach very few people, the regional local papers are quite popular. People want to know what’s happening in their towns. But all 19 regional papers were gobbled up recently by Lőrinc Mészáros and Andy Vajna, the alter-egos of Viktor Orbán. The sections of these local papers that deal with national and foreign news are written centrally and distributed to all 19 local papers. State television, which can be seen without a cable hookup, broadcasts unadulterated propaganda. TV2, the other television station that can be seen everywhere in the country, was acquired lately by Andy Vajna. Thus, people living in the countryside have access only to a one-sided and highly distorted view of reality. The 200 million forints, of course, will not alter that situation substantially, but it is a warning to the Orbán government that it went far too far in creating practically a one-party state with an omnipresent propaganda machine.

A good example of the marketplace of free ideas. The front page of a few of the 19 regional papers

Népszava called attention in its front-page article to the fact that “it is unparalleled in diplomatic practice for the United States to support independent media in a European country which is considered to be developed.” It also reminded the readers that as early as 2012 Mark Palmer, former ambassador to Hungary, Charles Gati, professor of political science, and Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, wrote an article in The Washington Post in which they called attention to the problem and suggested the revival of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian language radio station.

The so-called diplomats of Viktor Orbán’s ministry of foreign affairs might be too stunned to say anything, but at least two pro-government papers have an opinion on the matter. According to Magyar Idők, by giving this fairly modest grant “the United States is building a client media in the countryside.” The paper is certain that not just one group of journalists will be the beneficiaries. The United States will give grants to “minimally four or five organizations,” which might cost the U.S. about 2 million dollars. The paper sarcastically adds that for the United States this amount of money is insignificant, just as it wouldn’t be big money for China or Russia if they wanted to give money to the United States or Germany “for the support of ‘more’ objective information, leading to democratic reforms. But what would Donald Trump or Angela Merkel say to that?”

Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő, in an article titled “The temporary American chargé is planning to create an anti-media,” goes into a complicated explanation for the reasons for this grant. The real aim is “not raising the quality of Hungarian journalism;  the real goal is a change of government.” The article admits that the money will be distributed only after the national election, but what the Americans want to achieve with this move is to influence the results of the 2019 municipal elections. They gave up on the “democrats of the capital,” whom they are leaving to George Soros’s generosity, and are concentrating instead on the countryside, which is bright orange (i.e., solidly Fidesz) now. The article is full of complaints about “these temporary chargés” who are still hanging around. “Who is this Kostelancik?” He was foreign policy adviser to the Helsinki Commission, and “we are only too familiar with the Helsinki Commission.” He worked in Moscow as an adviser to the ambassador, and “we know from spy movies that these are always disagreeable fellows.” But when the ambassador appointed by Donald Trump comes, “he will get rid of Mr. Kostelancik.”

As is evident from the Figyelő article, Hungarian right-wing journalists, and to some extent even the politicians, hope that the lack of improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations is due to the fact that the old-timers are still hanging around. Donald Trump didn’t have time yet to get rid of them. But, as Népszava rightly points out, giving this grant to the independent media of a so-called democratic country is no trifling matter. It may even have been cleared by the White House.

The Hungarian right-wing media has a friend in the United States, Daniel McAdams, executive director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, who wrote an article after the announcement of the grant titled “Manipulation: The US State Department’s New Program to Take on Hungarian Media.” Only recently the U.S. Justice Department demanded that the Russian-backed RT America network register as a foreign propaganda entity or face arrest. And now DRL is launching a program to “massively interfere in NATO-partner Hungary’s internal media.” Hungary is “a full democracy where the will of the people is regularly expressed at the ballot box and there the media competes freely in the marketplace of ideas.” This intervention must feel “like a stab in the back to Orbán and his government” because while “Brussels saw Trump as a gauche loudmouth, Orbán openly admired the soon-to-be-president’s position on immigration.” In this article McAdams comes to the same conclusion as the journalist of Figyelő when he asks: “What would you do if China sent in a few million dollars to prop up US publications who agreed to push the Beijing line?” He warns: “Hands off Hungary!”

I think one should explain to Daniel McAdams that he is comparing apples to oranges. Russia Today is a Russian state-financed television network broadcasting Russian propaganda all over the world. DRL’s modest grant is designed to open a small door to those who are exposed exclusively to government propaganda. The amount of money the Orbán government spends on “communication” is staggering, and talking about competition “in the marketplace of free ideas” is a brazen lie when 19 regional papers are effectively in the hands of one man, the prime minister of the country.

November 11, 2017

Katrina Lantos Swett returns her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit

Népszabadság reported this morning that Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Tom Lantos Foundation and Institute for Human Rights and Justice, returned her Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit. With her gesture the number of those who expressed their disgust over the decoration of Zsolt Bayer by returning their own awards has increased to 109.

Katrina Lantos recalled that her father was the only Holocaust survivor who served in the U.S. Congress. He was a real Hungarian patriot who, despite all the tragedies he witnessed, “never lost his love for the country. For three decades he did all he could for Hungary.” She herself continued in this tradition and tried to pass the linguistic and cultural traditions of her family on to the younger generation. She was hoping to give the Knight’s Cross to her children one day and is sorry that by returning the decoration she will not have this opportunity. “The Hungarian government bestowing the Knight’s Cross to Zsolt Bayer stained this noble decoration.” She added that if her father were alive he would ask the government “to take back this unearned decoration from Bayer.” I should add that Judit Járai, the Washington correspondent for the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency (MTI), didn’t find Katrina Lantos’s announcement newsworthy.

Katrina Lantos Swett

Katrina Lantos Swett

A few words about the foundation and the institute that is being financed by the Hungarian government. Tom Lantos died suddenly in 2008, and shortly after his death it was proposed to establish a foundation and institute in his memory. But by the time the institute began to take shape there was a change of government. The new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had had a somewhat strained relationship with Tom Lantos. The last time he asked for an interview in Washington, Lantos made him wait for three days, and at the end of the meeting there was no joint press conference. Orbán left and Lantos had a few measured words to say about their differences.

As was expected, the Tom Lantos Institute’s board was composed primarily of Fidesz faithfuls whose views were a far cry from Tom Lantos’s. For example, Maximilian Teleki of the Hungarian American Coalition based in Washington and Kinga Gál, Fidesz EP MP. The Hungarian American Coalition is a decidedly right-of-center organization that has always favored Fidesz. Just to give you an idea of their bias, here is a story in which I myself was involved. One day sometime in 2002 I read that the Coalition had paid for about 20 members of the Hungarian parliament to spend a couple of weeks in Washington to take a closer look at American democracy in action. They all turned out to be Fidesz PMs. When I asked the then president of the Coalition why they invited only Fidesz MPs, he told me that the socialists and the liberals had turned down the invitation. It was a lie, as I found out in no time from the leader of the socialist parliamentary delegation.

So, the Tom Lantos Institute has been a controversial project from the beginning, mostly because of Viktor Orbán’s insistence on making it a party foundation. After all, he must have figured, it is his government that sponsors it and therefore it is his. This is how his mind works. The fact is that the government has given a fair amount of money to the institute. The institute’s website has no detailed information about its finances. All we know is that under “Donors and partners” they list only two donors: the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. We know that in 2009 the institute received 3 billion forints from the government to cover expenses for five years.

The staff consists of nine full-time associates, of whom five are researchers. The other four deal with finances, communication, and administrative duties. Otherwise, the focal points of the institute’s activities are “Jewish life and anti-Semitism,” “Roma rights and citizenship,” and “human and minority rights.” The institute’s publications are mostly texts of lectures delivered at conferences organized by the institute.

In 2011 Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, visited Budapest specifically for the opening of the institute. At that time I received a letter from a very reliable source who called himself “Diplomat Anonymous.” He begged Clinton not to go to Budapest. I published the letter in its entirety at that time. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s especially painful to hear that you may be coming here to bless the opening of the Tom Lantos Institute (TLI). I didn’t know the late Congressman well; we only shook hands once in Washington. But I know that he fought against prejudice, he fought for human rights. Yes, to his great credit, he cared about the Hungarian ethnic minority in the neighboring countries, and the Institute may well publish books or pamphlets on that issue. But what about media freedom here? What about anti-Semitism? Will TLI address these painful issues? I predict that it will not – it cannot — because the Orbán government authored this very restrictive media law, and it doesn’t believe there’s anti-Semitism in Hungary. As for the Roma issue, which is the most agonizing social problem here, please ask an aide to check out the background of Rita Izsák, TLI’s new Director. In the Roma community, of which she’s a member, she’s known as Uncle Tom. She will respect the wishes of the government, which, after all, is TLI’s sole financial backer.

Since then Rita Izsák has left the institute. In 2013 Anna-Mária Bíró became the new director. She hails from Transylvania, where in the 1990s she was adviser to the president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania or, as it is known in Hungarian, Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ), a right-of-center party. Most of the researchers are young women. Just recently the institute hired a young Hungarian program manager for Jewish life and anti-Semitism and a publications and communications officer from New Zealand. It is hard to pass any judgment on the work the institute is doing based on the scant information that is available.

But let’s return to the president of the Hungarian American Coalition, Maximilian Teleki, who was interviewed by Népszabadság in connection with Katrina Lantos’s return of the Knight’s Cross. He expressed his astonishment at the government’s decision to give a decoration to Bayer and added that “many of us supported some if not all steps of the Fidesz government. We especially approved of their announcement of ‘zero tolerance’ against anti-Semitism. Now we ask ourselves how they are able to go against their own pledge. Two steps forward and one big one backward?” Mr. Teleki, who by the way doesn’t speak Hungarian so his knowledge of the present political situation must be limited, came to the conclusion that the political views of Jobbik and Bayer are identical. Well, just for his information, Bayer is a member of Fidesz and without the blessing of Viktor Orbán he would not be able to publish the smut he does. The members of the Hungarian American Coalition should wake up and admit to themselves that, at least since 1994, they have been supporting a party and a government which no real democrat with a modicum of conscience should. Make a clean break instead of constant excuses. It doesn’t reflect well on the Hungarian American Coalition.

September 2, 2016

The situation of Hungarian human rights defenders: mission statement by UN special rapporteur Michel Forst

United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst spent nine days (between February 8 and 16, 2016) reviewing “the situation of human rights defenders to gather first-hand information on challenges faced by civil society in Hungary and explore ways to widen the democratic space.” Forst, who hails from France, has extensive experience on human rights issues, especially on the situation of human rights defenders. Special rapporteurs are not UN  staff members and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

What you can read here is the “end of mission statement” of Mr. Forst. Those who are familiar with the situation in Hungary will not be surprised by his findings. I should add here that the United Nations’ Human Rights Office normally doesn’t send rapporteurs to democratic countries in the European Union. The Hungarian situation, especially after the repeated attacks of the government on the Ökotárs Foundation, caused alarm in the office of the high commissioner.

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Michel Forst, rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Michel Forst, rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

End of mission statement by Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Visit to Hungary 8 – 16 February 2016

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by warmly thanking the Government of Hungary for inviting me and for its cooperation throughout this visit. The objective of my visit was to assess, in the spirit of cooperation and dialogue, the environment in which human rights defenders and civil society operate in the country. Today, I will confine myself to some preliminary observations and recommendations on some of the main issues, which will be elaborated in more detail in the report once I review the materials and documents that I have gathered and been provided with. I will present my final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in March 2017.

At the outset, I wish to note that I am not employed by United Nations and the position I hold is honorary. As an independent expert, I exercise my professional and impartial judgement and report directly to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

I would like to commend the Government of Hungary for its excellent cooperation and efforts to ensure that I could make the most from my visit. I have met with high-level representatives of the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs and Justice. I had a chance to meet with representatives of the Legislation Committee of the National Assembly, Prosecutor-General, Ombudsman, Constitutional and Supreme Courts. I also had meetings with the Office of Immigration and Nationality, Government Control Office and National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information. I also met with the Head of the Regional Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and members of the diplomatic corps.

During my visit, I have had the opportunity to visit Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged and meet with a wide range of human rights defenders, academicians and representatives of non-governmental organisations, which reinforced my impression of an active and engaged civil society in Hungary.

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to meet with me and shared their valuable experiences and insights as well as those who helped in organising this visit.

This is the first visit of this mandate to Hungary, a country which has gone through significant and rapid changes over the past decades. Hungary has transitioned towards free market and has set the foundations of democracy after a long period of authoritarianism. However, in the last five years the far-reaching and extensive constitutional changes have had profound effect on the civil society environment. I will explore these changes in more detail later on.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In line with the international human rights law, the primary duty to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lies with the State. This includes guaranteeing the right of everyone, individually and in association with others, to strive for the protection and realization of human rights. In other words, every one of us has the right to defend all human rights for all.

The Hungarian State is therefore under the obligation to take steps to create necessary conditions, including in the political and legal domains, in order to ensure that everyone in Hungary can enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.

Ensuring a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders is a principal part of that responsibility. My visit has therefore focused primarily on assessing some of the basic elements of such an enabling environment, namely: a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework; access to justice; a strong and independent national human rights institution; effective protection policies and mechanisms paying attention to groups at risk and applying gender-sensitive approach; non-State actors that respect and support the work of defenders; and a strong and dynamic community of defenders.

Conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework

Hungary is a party to fourteen universal human rights treaties and conventions. In this connection, I encourage the Government to ratify the remaining three UN treaties, in particular Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as Conventions on All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

I also recommend that the Government considers mainstreaming human rights into the Hungarian institutional and policy framework, including by adopting a national action plan on human rights with clear and specific goals and indicators.

Overall, human rights defenders have been able to effectively carry out their work in Hungary. I have been very much impressed during my visit by the dynamism and competence displayed by Hungarian civil society, which is made up of over 81,000 registered organisations (53,000 associations and 28,000 foundations).

However, defenders increasingly work in a rather polarised and politicised environment. They are exposed to serious challenges which, in some instances, appear to amount to violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as of their legitimate right to promote and defend human rights, as enshrined in the UN Declaration on human rights defenders. I will now briefly highlight some of these challenges, which will be further developed in my report.

  1. a) The weakening of the constitutional framework and rule of law

After 1989, the old Soviet constitution was amended by Hungary to ensure constitutional checks and balances in State power. However, since 2011 over a thousand of laws have been introduced in a rushed manner, without any comprehensive debate or meaningful consultation with civil society. These constitutional changes have gradually removed important checks on the executive branch, weakened the Constitutional Court and led to the centralization and tightening of government’s control over the judiciary, the media, religious organizations and other spheres of public life, directly or indirectly affecting human rights. There is a consensus among international, regional and local observers that these measures have in sum weakened a well-functioning democracy.

And because of the disrupted checks and balances and feeble political opposition, human rights defenders who criticize the Government or raise human rights concerns are quickly intimidated and portrayed as “political” or “foreign agents”. They face enormous pressure through public criticism, stigmatization in the media, unwarranted inspections and reduction of state funding. I have received testimonies of specific examples when authorities tried to de-legitimize defenders and civil society representatives and, at the same time, undermine their work through excessive administrative and financial hurdles, as well as criminal defamation.

Unfortunately, the scope of dialogue between civil society and decision-makers has been steadily shrinking, and authorities have displayed growing lack of interest in such dialogue, especially when it entails an exchange of dissenting views.

In addition to unfriendly rhetoric from government officials, independent civil society organisations are denied access to state-run media outlets, face funding impediments, are blacklisted from government cooperation and are subjected to excessive and unjustified inspections.

I urge the Government to ensure that human rights defenders can conduct their work in a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework. In this vein, government officials should refrain from criminalizing defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities. They should instead support the work of independent civil society despite disagreements or criticism of the Government, bearing in mind their invaluable role in advancing Hungarian society. The Government should review and abolish all administrative and legislative provisions that restrict the rights of defenders, and ensure that domestic legislation respects basic principles relating to international human rights law and standards.

  1. b) Freedom of expression

The legislative changes introduced by the Government have also had an impact on the freedom of expression in the country. The media laws specify new content regulations for all media platforms, outline the powers of the new media regulatory body, and set out sanctions for breaches of the laws. The media itself has also undergone through increased state regulation. Defamation remains a criminal offence in Hungary, and is a charge regularly brought against investigative journalists, defenders and watchdog organisations. Journalists who publish critical articles are blacklisted from accessing public events or officials, or can lose their jobs in retaliation.

Hungary was once renowned for its Act on Freedom of Information, which used to guarantee access to public interest information and was supported by strong oversight institutions, headed by a parliamentary ombudsman. Yet after repeated amendments to the regulatory framework, journalists and watchdog organisations now lament about reduced accessibility of public interest information and frequent denials of requests for such information.

Moreover, the last amendment of July 2015, adopted within days of introduction and without public consultation, allows a government agency that possesses pubic interest data to charge the requesting party ‘labour costs associated with completing the information request’, to be determined by that agency. Even more concerning are reports of a planned draft legislation on postal services. It would apparently exclude the contracts of the Hungarian Post from the scope of freedom of information. It would also exclude requests that “disproportionately hamper the business activities” of Hungarian Post from the scope of public interest information. Human rights defenders justifiably fear that such law, if adopted, will become a precedent to future strings of decrees exempting state-owned companies from freedom of information oversight. I urge the Government to halt its efforts aimed at shrinking the scope of public interest information and the accessibility of such data to civil society. This is essential part of open and good governance, which should be reinforced instead.

  1. c) Freedom of association

The legal framework in Hungary is generally hospitable to freedom of association. It provides for two legal forms of non-governmental organizations (association and foundation), which are not legally restricted by the type of political activities, unless they seek ‘public benefit status’ that allows for accessing the national cooperation fund.

However, there were critical amendments to two laws: the civil code and the non-profit act, which required NGOs to revise and modify their bylaws. The non-profit act laid out new conditions linking public benefit status to legally-prescribed state services. Due to a combination of complex interpretation of the new conditions, absent legal aid, and lack of awareness of the new requirements, only a small fraction of NGOs that previously had public benefit status reportedly met the deadline of May 2014.

The new civil code required NGOs to amend specific details in their statutes once again, with a grace period of March 2016. The procedure to register an NGO is reported to be lengthy, often involving several rounds of requests by the courts for modifications. The prosecutor’s office, which oversees the legality of civil society’s work – regularly appeals court decisions. According to legal experts, re-registration to obtain the public benefit status takes on average 6-8 months, and for some NGOs it has taken up to 16 months. Although the amended non-profit act foresaw the introduction of a simplified electronic registration system, it was not yet operational at the time of this visit (while business enterprises have already been using simplified online registration). Furthermore, regulations are considered by civil society as unnecessarily bureaucratic and stringent.

I urge the Government to assist civil society organisations in their attempts to comply with new laws by providing them with legal aid and introducing a simple electronic registration system. I further recommend the Government to make registrations more simple, non-onerous and expeditious and adopt ‘notification procedure’, by which associations are automatically granted legal personality as soon as the authorities are notified by the founders that an organization was created. The Government should avoid adopting new laws that would require previously registered associations to re-register.

What I have learnt during the visit indicates that the situation of civil society in Hungary has worsened in the last several years. Besides the more rigid legal environment, the financial sustainability of NGOs, their ability to assert their interests, the underlying infrastructure servicing civil society, general public’s opinion of human rights defenders, and the supporter base of NGOs have all reportedly changed for the worse compared to previous times.

Furthermore, authorities have effectively sought to restrict the work of civil society and increase supervision through such indirect means as investigations on funding, increased auditing, new internet laws and increased media campaigns stigmatising human rights defenders.

Nearly every defender and representative of civil society I have met raised alarm about the deeply regrettable targeting of the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation (composed of Őkotàrs, Autonomia, Demnet and the Kàrpàtok foundation), which managed the ‘Norwegian NGO Fund’ and other NGOs that benefitted from it. Since August 2013, Őkotàrs and 13 other NGOs receiving European Economic Area (EEA) grants have been stigmatised by newspapers as entities “serving foreign interests”. From April to July 2014, senior government officials from the Prime Minister’s Office called the NGOs “party-dependent, cheating nobodies” and “paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests”.  They called for the NGO Fund to be suspended. A number of beneficiary organisations (mostly those working on human rights, women’s rights organisations and watchdogs) were disturbingly blacklisted as ‘dirty 13’ by authorities.

Subsequently, the Government Control Office (KEHI) began to investigate those NGOs and their financed projects. Since KEHI’s mandate extends only to the use of Hungarian public money and the NGO Fund was financed by EEA, the legality of its audits has been questioned. Moreover, KEHI requested that various documents be handed over, but NGOs refused to comply with those requests that demanded names and personal details of their volunteers and participants in their past events.

On 8 September 2014, in a chilling message to civil society, police officers carried out raids in the offices of Őkotárs and Demnet, confiscating their files and computer servers. The raids were found to be unlawful by courts later in January 2015. KEHI also requested the prosecutor to initiate criminal proceedings against the targeted NGOs, despite the fact that external auditing carried out at the request of Norway revealed no irregularities. Even if no breaches of law have been found after the wide-ranging investigation, senior government officials continued to publicly denounce Őkotárs for carrying out its activities in an unlawful manner.

After extensive discussions with representatives of the affected NGOs, KEHI and other government offices, I am concerned about reported breaches of due process. There was clearly no presumption of innocence assumed on the part of the Government, with senior government officials showing openly biased approach against those NGOs and stigmatising them in the media. KEHI’s official website portal only cited news articles that portrayed the NGOs in negative terms, even though it was legally obliged to remain objective in its investigation. And until now, KEHI failed to formally convey the findings of its investigation with the NGOs and publicly announce it closed.

During the meetings with KEHI and other government officials, I was informed that the investigations have now ended, and they have found no violations of the law committed by any NGO. Government officials also admitted the investigation was ‘political’, and that the enormous amount of time and resources spent on scrutinizing civil society in vain could have been directed to unearthing serious white-collar crime in public offices. I am concerned about the harm of the public stigmatisation on the reputation of those NGOs. It is regrettable that there was no public apology for breaches in due process or admission by the Government that the NGOs were proven to be innocent.

With regard to the future cycle of the Norwegian NGO Fund, I was reassured by the Norwegian Government that sustainable funding to independent civil society will be continued in the next funding period of 2014-2021.

  1. d) Freedom of assembly

The Hungarian law provides guarantees for the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Demonstrations do not require obtaining a police permit, but organizers must inform police of a planned assembly in a public place at least three days in advance. The law authorizes police to prohibit any gathering, if it seriously endangers the peaceful operation of representative bodies or courts or if it is not possible to provide for alternate routes for traffic. A decision to prohibit a public demonstration is open for judicial review. For example, the refusal of peaceful demonstration in front of Prime-Minister’s residence was found unlawful by the court on 4 July 2015.

However, I have heard testimonies that demonstrations by human rights activists promoting the rights of Roma and LGBTI communities are held in the climate of fear and are strictly controlled for safety reasons. Those defenders cannot comprehend why authorities could not take preventive measures to address threats arising from far-right extremists, rather than treat them as source of public insecurity.

There have been also concerns raised about excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the counterterrorism centre against protesting migrants and journalists observing those protests on 16 September 2015. And more recently, I have received reports of indirect intimidation of teachers and trade unionists from Miskolc, who planned to organise a national protest in Budapest on 13 February. Some of the teachers who wanted to participate in the protests were advised by officials to re-consider and police allegedly was asking questions of individuals about their plans to take part in the demonstration.

I urge the Government to ensure protection of defenders who peacefully assemble from individuals or groups of individuals, including agents-provocateurs and counter-demonstrators, who aim at disrupting or dispersing such assemblies. I further urge the Government to ensure that restrictions to peaceful assembly do not impair the essence of the right, are prescribed by law, are proportionate and ‘necessary in a democratic society’, and still allow demonstrations to take place within ‘sight and sound’ of its object and target audience.

Access to justice

A series of legal and constitutional changes have undermined access to justice for human rights defenders in Hungary. For example, access to the Constitutional Court was radically limited by scrapping the previously robust system of actio popularis, which allowed any human rights defender to bring the case to the Court on issues of broader public concern.

The fourth amendment to the constitution of 2013 drastically limited the jurisdiction of the Court, repealing all of the decisions made by the Court before 1 January 2012. As a result, all previous precedents of the Court are not allowed to be invoked in new cases and there no longer judiciary review of laws related to the central budget and taxation issues. The constructional changes banned the Court from reviewing constitutional amendments for substantive conflicts with constitutional principles, a measure which allowed the government to re-introduce through a constitutional amendment the proposals that had been previously struck down by the Court as unconstitutional. The substantively weakened Court is only allowed to review procedural validity of new amendments.

Furthermore, by lowering the retirement age for ordinary judges from 70 to 62, the government managed to remove almost all of the courts’ presidents. The former Constitutional Court found this legislation unconstitutional and contrary to the independence of the judiciary. A new National Judicial Office was established with the power to replace the retiring judges and to name new ones, as well as to reassign specific cases from one court to another.

Out of concern for the situation in the country, the European Parliament adopted a text on 16 December 2015 about the situation in Hungary as a follow up to its resolution of 10 June 2015, calling on the European Commission to initiate ‘rule of law framework’ procedures, a tool designed to tackle emerging systemic threats to the rule of law in an EU member state.

Notwithstanding the above, I have heard many testimonies from defenders indicating their confidence in the overall independence of the judiciary, which continues to provide remedy to violations of their rights and of those individuals who they represent. In this context and given the increasing litigation facing human rights defenders, there is a general agreement among those individuals who I have spoken about the woeful lack of legal assistance. This is particularly the case because of general fear among lawyers to take human rights and sensitive cases for fear of retaliation from the government. I recommend that the Government allocates budgetary resources to ensure independent legal assistance to human rights defenders. I also urge the Government to strengthen the judiciary and make sure that it can operate independently and effectively, as weaknesses in the judicial system and flaws in the legal framework deprive defenders of adequate access to seek justice.

Effective protection policy and mechanisms for human rights defenders

In Hungary, there are no specific policies or mechanism to protect human rights defenders from attacks, threats or harassment. Several testimonies heard during my visit show that some of the most vulnerable human rights defenders, namely those working on migration and Roma would benefit greatly from such protection.
In recent years, several States have developed specific national mechanisms to protect defenders through laws, action policies and mechanisms in consultation with national and international human rights organizations. The work has been underpinned by provisions from the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. I recommend that the Government of Hungary considers establishing a national mechanism on protecting human rights defenders, in consultation with civil society organizations. The national mechanism should also include specific measures to ensure prompt and independent investigation of all violations against defenders, and the prosecution of alleged perpetrators regardless of their status. It should also ensure access to just and effective remedies, including appropriate compensation. I remain available to the Government for any advisory support it may require in this connection.

During the visit, I have heard frequent concerns that human rights has become a ‘political vocation’ and NGOs are often perceived and labeled as ‘political’ entities by government officials, drawing strong negative counter-attacks on critical views. Senior government officials have described NGOs as ‘paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests’, which encouraged authorities to target human rights organizations through surprise financial audits, criminal investigations and public shaming, thus curtailing their activities. I am seriously concerns by the frequency and tenacity of those political statements, which many perceive as an attempt to silence dissenting voices that speak out human rights.
I urge the Government to draw a clear boundary between political debate among political parties and social dialogue with civil society pertaining to the promotion of human rights, and refrain from conflating the two discourses with a view to delegitimizing independent organizations and stifling critical views.

Specific groups of human rights defenders exposed to risks

Not all human rights defenders see their situation as particularly exposed to risk, besides the general stigmatization and shrinking civil society space. However, some human rights defenders face particularly serious challenges that, in some instances, appear to amount to violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as of their legitimate right to defend human rights.

Those groups include women human rights defenders who are exposed to risks both as defenders and women, especially those who promote sexual and reproductive rights. Some of them face multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination, as well as visible and invisible forms of violence that prevents them from carrying out their work in a safe and enabling environment.

LGBTI defenders sometimes face difficult situations and are often subject to social prejudice than others. For example, the 2015 Budapest Pride Parade took place behind a caged police barricade, where activists still experienced threats and hostility from other observers.

Defenders promoting economic, social and cultural rights and environmentalist organizations are sometimes labelled as anti-development when they oppose developmental projects that have detrimental impact on the rights of the local community. Some of those defenders are sued by companies and intimidated by authorities for raising questions about factories or industries, which pose environmental risk.

Whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing corruption, fraud, and mismanagement, and in preventing disasters that arise from negligence or wrongdoing. However, there is little protection granted to whistleblowers, beyond the mere existence of a law on whistleblower protection. Most whistleblowers have been subject to harassment and retaliation, including loss of employment and becoming blacklisted for future employment. The media portrays them in negative terms by shunning and shaming whistleblowers as trouble-makers or foreign agents. This has sent a chilling effect will deter others from denouncing corruption or misconduct by public officials. Those who have suffered from retaliation have sought reinstatement and compensation through the courts, but testimonies received show that a positive outcome is far from guaranteed. The Ombudsman’s function seems to be restricted to receiving reports and forwarding them to competent authorities.

I urge the Government to strengthen legal and policy framework to protect whistleblowers. I recommend reinforcing the existing legislation and establishing a strong and independent national whistleblower agency that would have the power to grant legal protection and support whistleblowers.

During the visit, it has become apparent that defenders that are excessively at risk are Roma activists due to widespread and long-term climate of xenophobia, leading to direct physical threats and intimidation. Several testimonies indicate severe threats or physical attacks against Roma activists throughout the country. In Miskolc, the Roma community and their leaders face a strong rejection by the majority of residents and the local municipality. About 450 Roma residents on the outskirts of Miskolc were “put at risk of forced eviction and possible homelessness” in May 2014. Residents were threatened with eviction in August 2014, as part of the local government’s efforts to “eliminate slums” under a government-sponsored law adopted in May 2014.

Human rights defenders and grass-roots activists working on the rights of asylum-seekers are those who are facing acute risks of threats to their person and their families due to the increased politicization and criminalization of their work. I have received several reports of direct threats, anonymous phone calls and text messages, hacking of personal social media and trolling on the social media.

National human right institution

The previous system of four Ombudsmen was replaced by a parliamentary commissioner for fundamental rights, which decreased the level of protection in relation to certain rights and weakened the institution. The former Ombudsman’s mandate was terminated before the end of their term of office, which was found unlawful by the European Court of Justice in April 2014.

The former Data Protection Ombudsman was transformed into a quasi-governmental authority, which does not comply with the requirement of independence. The previous Ombudsman was elected by the Parliament for a six-year period, while the head of the new authority is appointed exclusively by the Prime Minister for a nine-year period.

The Ombudsman was recently also designated as the National Preventative Mechanism, however the budget of the Office was not increased, hindering its effective operation. Despite the recent accreditation of an (A) as compliant with the Paris Principles, recent amendments to the law and the lack of enforceability of his recommendations have weakened the effectiveness of the Ombudsman’s mandate. In the same vein, the continuous lack of funding could hamper his independence and his capacity to act as a strong and effective mechanism.

In order to ensure the credibility of the work of the Ombudsman, the Government should increase allocated budget to the Office and take measures to ensure adequate follow-up and implementation of his recommendations.

I also recommend that the Ombudsman expands the scope of his activities to be an effective and visible focal point for human rights defenders. He could thus be in a unique position to provide protection for human rights defenders, as it is inherent in his mandate. Human rights defenders could be considered as a specific group at risk and, as such, fall within his mandate. This protection could be offered in a number of ways, including through formal complaints mechanisms and protection programs; advocacy and awareness raising; offering public support when violations are committed against defenders; and capacity building. Protection could also be offered with more specific and direct means, including acting on individual complaints; visiting defenders in detention; and providing legal aid in the context of violations against defenders.

Non-State actors

It has become apparent that non-State actors have frequently taken part in the attacks or threats against human rights defenders. According to the international human rights law, the State is responsible to protect human rights defenders from detrimental action by non-State actors aimed at intimidating or threatening defenders and for failing to carry out effective investigations into such cases.

The media landscape is dominated by outlets closely affiliated or loyal to the Government, a phenomenon that has developed over the past decade and bolstered since 2010. Media laws allow political interference in the editorial content of public broadcast channels. Freedom of the press has been severely limited by the laws that restrict the opportunity for diversity of service and established a powerful control mechanism to strictly regulate broadcast, print and online media. This concentration of media in the hands of the Government seriously curtails free access to media by human rights defenders and civil society organizations. As a result, they have little media coverage to raise their concerns, express dissenting views or defend their human rights positions.

I have heard several cases of verbal attacks, physical attacks and threats by far-rights extremists that harbour ultra-nationalist views, mainly targeting members or volunteers of organizations dedicated to migrant’s rights and Roma issues.

I have also met with environmental defenders that pointed out increased criminal defamation litigations by companies, following their actions to protect the right to environmental rights. Local media usually portrays environmentalists and watchdogs as obstructing development.

Community of human rights defenders

I have met with numerous brave and courageous human rights defenders working on different issues during the course of my visit. Those who help asylum seekers, support Roma communities, defend the rights of LGBTI and women, environmentalists, lawyers and social workers. However, the general feeling is that apart of some bigger organizations, some defenders can feel isolated and not sufficiently inter-connected. It appears that NGOs are not strongly embedded into society, and have not gained sufficient support from the broader society for their work, which can undermine their ability to gain support and mobilise.

Similarly, the contraction of available funding has over the years resulted in a greater competition among NGOs, which have become increasingly aware of overlapping projects in the same community and with similar objectives and results. In the work of human rights, collaboration is crucial. A single organization will never have the resources or all the skills necessary to ensure social change and support a global movement of human rights defenders. I recommend civil society organisations in Hungary to establish national and local networks of support, develop and strengthen coalitions with shared objectives, and reinforce partnerships in fund-raising.

It is striking to see how the lack of access to funding can weaken NGOs. Several organizations decided to close their offices, discontinue programmes, and lay off staff due to insufficient or unsustainable funding. In several occasions, NGOs providing community or social services have seen their contract simply discontinued or interrupted, after they published information or testimonies perceived as hostile to the Government. As the access to EU funding is channelled through government-controlled agency, the discontinuation of funding is used as a tool to silence dissent or to encourage self-censorship.

I recommends to civil society organisation to establish stronger links to European and international networks in order to compensate the shortage of independent funding. I call for concrete measures to be put in place to prevent governmental agencies to interrupt or misuse EU funding to favour organizations that are closely affiliated to the Government. I urge the European Union to examine carefully the impact of channelling its financial resources through governmental agencies on the weakening of independent civil society organizations and explore alternative ways to directly fund those organizations.


We need to continue our efforts to raise public awareness of human rights among the general public and foster a spirit of dialogue and cooperation in society.

I would like to conclude by reiterating my preliminary recommendations to various stakeholders.

I recommend that the Government:

  • Mainstream human rights into the institutional and policy framework, including by adopting a national action plan on human rights with clear and specific goals and indicators, taking into account recommendations by International and European human rights mechanisms.
  • Ensure that human rights defenders can conduct their work in a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework.
  • Refrain from criminalizing defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities, and instead support the work of independent civil society, whatever disagreements may be.
  • Review and abolish all administrative and legislative provisions that restrict the rights of defenders, and ensure that domestic legislation respects basic principles relating to international human rights law and standards.
  • Formulate a clear policy recognizing the indispensable role of human rights defenders and ensuring their protection.
  • Address any attempts to stigmatize human rights defenders, whether by public officials or non-State actors.
  • Strengthen the role and independence of the Ombudsman and reinforce his financial autonomy. Consult Ombudsman in the process of developing human rights protection mechanisms and in particular in the establishment of a protection programme for human rights defenders.
  • Take measures to ensure adequate follow-up and implementation of the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
  • Refrain from shrinking the scope of public interest information and the accessibility of such data to civil society.
  • Make registrations of associations more simple, non-onerous and expeditious and adopt ‘notification procedure’.
  • Avoid adopting new laws that would require previously registered associations to re-register.
  • Allocate budgetary resources to ensure independent legal assistance to human rights defenders, and strengthen the judiciary by ensuring it can operate independently and effectively.
  • Ensure protection of defenders who peacefully assemble from individuals or groups of individuals, who aim at disrupting or dispersing such assemblies.
  • Ensure that restrictions to peaceful assembly do not impair the essence of the right, are prescribed by law, are proportionate and ‘necessary in a democratic society’, and still allow demonstrations to take place within ‘sight and sound’ of its object and target audience.
  • Pay close attention and follow through reports of threats and attacks against human rights defenders. A policy for effective criminal investigations should be defined and investigative working methods should be revised.
  • Establish an independent body to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and to supervise the appointment, promotion and regulation of the profession in accordance with international human rights standards. Judges should be ensured tenure in order to exercise their functions in an independent manner.
  • I recommend reinforcing the existing legislation and establishing a strong and independent national whistleblower agency that would have the power to grant legal protection and support whistleblowers.
  • Review the successive amendments to Act on Freedom of Information in order to guarantee a free and uncontrolled access to information to all human rights defenders and journalists. Withdraw the draft legislation on the National Post.
  • Ensure that both public and private actors, including companies, respect human rights defenders and investigate instances where non-State actors commit violations against human rights defenders, leading to prosecution of the responsible and compensation to the victims.
  • Establishing a national mechanism on protecting human rights defenders, in consultation with civil society organizations.

I recommend that the Ombudsman:

  • Expand the scope of Ombudsman’s activities by serving as public focal point for human rights defenders.

I recommend that human rights defenders:

  • Develop and strengthen national and local platforms or networks aimed at protecting defenders and facilitating coordination.
  • Become more informed of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and publicise it broadly in society.
  • Make full use of United Nations special procedures and other international and European human rights mechanisms, when reporting on human rights violations.

I recommend that non-state actors:

  • Political parties, media, private companies and far-right groups should refrain from organising or participating in the attacks, threats or stigmatisation of human rights defenders.
  • Public and private media should grant and facilitate free access to their publications and broadcasts for defenders and civil society organizations to publicise their human rights work.

I recommend that international community:

  • Intensify efforts to empower and support human rights defenders and civil society organisations.
  • Support dialogue and encourage collaboration between the Government of Hungary and civil society organisations in order to ensure human rights in institution-building, development and other programmes and ensure the protection of human rights defenders in these programmes.
  • EU should review its policy on funding civil society organizations exclusively only through the state budget and develop additional and alternative sources of funding ensure free and non-politicized access to funding for all civil society organizations.
February 18, 2016

Full-court press against the Orbán government

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó compared the European Union to an old gent with halting steps, but lately the old man has quickened his stride. At least as far as Brussels’ relation with Hungary is concerned. Patience seems to have run out with Hungary’s maverick prime minister, Viktor Orbán. One after the other, officials of the EU and the Council of Europe have called on the Hungarian government to explain its past unlawful or at least legally questionable moves.

First came, on November 19, the official announcement that “the European Commission decided to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning the implementation of the Paks II nuclear power plant project.” The reaction of the Hungarian government was predictable. János Lázár, instead of talking about the actual case–the lack of an open tender, which is an EU requirement–talked about the EU allegedly prohibiting Hungary from signing bilateral commercial agreements with so-called third countries. For details see my post titled “Infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the Paks nuclear power plant.” Hungary has two months to give a satisfactory answer. If the answer is not satisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

Four days later, on November 23, it was announced that “the European Commission has opened an in-depth state aid investigation into Hungary’s plans to provide financing for the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Paks.” The question is “whether a private investor would have financed the project on similar terms or whether Hungary’s investment constitutes state aid.” Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy, and her staff think that “this investment may not be on market terms, as Hungary argues.”

Two days after the announcement of the second in-depth investigation, on November 25, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in the Bundestag in which she talked about solidarity as “the acid test” for the maintenance of the borderless Schengen area. She stressed that “a distribution of refugees according to economic strength and other conditions … and the readiness for a permanent distribution mechanism … will determine whether the Schengen area will hold in the long term.” The speech was interpreted as a sharp warning aimed at the new EU members. Hungary’s immediate reaction was that Hungary couldn’t possibly take any refugees because its economic situation wouldn’t allow such generosity. The government spokesman talked about 15,000 possible “migrants,” who in time would bring other family members. Within a few years Hungary would be stranded with close to 200,000 Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

On November 27 Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, after spending three days in Hungary, issued a statement about Hungary’s response to the current refugee crisis and came to the conclusion that “Hungary has not lived up to this challenge.” He complained about the “accelerated asylum procedure lacking essential safeguards.” Under this new procedure “asylum-seekers have seen their claim processed in less than a day and sent back to Serbia directly from the Röszke transit zone.” Muižnieks also noted that the crisis measures Hungary introduced are still in effect although hardly any refugees are in Hungary. After detailing all the reproachable and outright illegal pieces of legislation and practices, he called on the Hungarian government “to refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric linking migrants to social problems or security risks.”

By that time Szijjártó became convinced that “a mysterious conspiracy is unfolding against Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, “it is evident that some people would like see an opaque and confused situation in Hungary.”

On the very same day it was reported that the European Commission had given the green light to a citizens’ initiative launched by the European Humanist Federation (EHF) to strip Hungary of its voting rights in the European Union. What is a citizens’ initiative? According to the official explanation, “a European citizen’s initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states.” A list of these minimum numbers can be found online. In Hungary’s case only 15,750 valid signatures are needed.

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens' initiative on their website

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens’ initiative

The European Humanist Federation launched its initiative called “Wake up Europe!” on October 2. Its official website outlines the reasons for the initiative. Nine individuals from eight countries charge Viktor Orbán’s government with “anti-democratic and xenophobic measures that openly violate the basic principles of the rule of law.” In response, “a committee of EU citizens has launched an ECI to call on the European Commission to trigger Article 7 of TEU and bring the Hungarian issue to the Council.”

The Commission approved this citizens’ initiative on a day when Tibor Navracsics, the commissioner representing Hungary, happened to be away. Navracsics “in a strongly-worded letter criticized the decision to hold the meeting in his absence as well as the substance of the initiative.” He claimed that this was “a sensitive political issue” which could result in consequences reaching “far beyond the aim of the initiative.” Szijjártó considered the acceptance of the citizens’ initiative by the Commission to be a case of “revenge by Brussels” for “the successful migration policy of Hungary.”

The most fanciful explanation for the launch of the citizens’ initiative in the first place came from Magyar Idők. The editorial board of this pro-government paper is convinced that, once again, it is George Soros who is behind this attack on Hungary and Viktor Orbán. The explanation, according to Magyar Idők, is simple. Since the European Humanist Federation’s affiliated partners all share Soros’s concept of an Open Society, the EHF must be a front organization for Soros. Moreover, since the Commission accepted the EHF’s citizens’ initiative, “IN ADDITION TO THE CIVIC GROUPS THE EU COMMISSIONERS ARE ALSO IN SOROS’S POCKET.” Yes, in boldface caps. Magyar Idők accuses the commissioners of purposely picking a date when Navracsics would not be present.

Yes, it seems that the whole world is against the poor, innocent Orbán government. But pulling the strings is one man who has the power to move twenty-seven commissioners and their staff to make a concerted attack not just against Hungary but against the very idea of the “nation state.” I don’t know how effective such simple-minded explanations are, but I guess they might resonate with some people, especially since Soros’s name is associated with Jewishness and financial speculation, notions that are anathema to the far right.

Well, George Soros may not be pulling the strings in Brussels, but Viktor Orbán definitely is in Budapest. And through his mouthpieces he’s sounding more and more like Jobbik (and as a result is siphoning off Jobbik supporters).

International conspiracy to change the face of Europe, according to Viktor Orbán

Yesterday Viktor Orbán held his regular Friday morning interview at Magyar Rádió, and later he delivered a speech at a gathering organized by the Association of Christian Intelligentsia, the Association of Hungarian Civic Cooperation, and the Batthyány Circle of Professors. All three are closely allied with Fidesz. The Association of Christian Intelligentsia in 2009 joined CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), the group responsible for the peace marches. The current president of the Association of Hungarian Civic Cooperation is Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources. Earlier János Martonyi, the former foreign minister, filled the post. The pro-Fidesz professors’ association has been in existence since 1995. Its first president was József Pálinkás, minister of education in the first Orbán government. So, Viktor Orbán was very much at home.

The event was organized in response to a booklet that pro-Fidesz “intellectuals” and the supporting Catholic clergy who are involved with the Association of Christian Intelligentsia had written. The booklet, “Signs of the Times,” is, as far as I can ascertain, a set of guiding principles for the Hungarian right.

Because of the heavy emphasis on religion, specifically Catholicism, it is not surprising that Orbán’s speech was mostly about the relationship between state and church, specifically the close ties between Fidesz and the Catholic Church. He spent only a few sentences on the refugee issue, but it was that topic that was widely reported in Hungary and abroad. Although, following their example, I will start with this topic, I’m planning to return to the rest of the speech soon. The comments he made on the refugee issue at this gathering must be analyzed in conjunction with his longer rumination on the problem and its Hungarian solution on Hungarian state radio.

As far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, the refugee crisis is over. The Hungarian position is simple. No migrant, refugee or not, will ever enter Hungary not only because there is now a well-guarded fence but because, by the time the asylum seekers reach Turkey, their lives are no longer in danger. They are no longer refugees, and therefore Hungary has no obligation to accept them. Moreover, Brussels will not be able to send any refugees back to Hungary just because they were initially registered on Hungarian soil. The Hungarian position is that, since they entered the European Union in Greece, it should have been Greece that registered them. This train of thought is logical enough as long as one thinks in terms of individual nation states acting entirely independently. But EU membership means that countries have to act for the common good as well as in their own self-interest.

As for distributing bona fide refugees among member states, Hungary finds the whole procedure illegal, irrational, and unfair. Alluding to Germany, he claimed that “it is not correct to invite people into our country and then divvy them up among other nations.” But he proposed an even more dangerous idea. The bureaucrats in Brussels want to make this plan permanent and automatic, which is completely unacceptable. No one can force sovereign countries “to admit people whom they don’t want.” Such a move challenges the very foundation of a European Union built on nation states. He suggests that since there is, in his opinion, no acceptable EU solution to the problem, “each country should solve this problem itself, just as Hungary did.”

A decision that would mandate an automatic distribution of refugees among member states “might be a liberal [solution], but [it is] not a democratic solution.” EU politicians cannot ignore the will of the people. Neither the national parliaments nor the European Parliament voted for such a solution. “In this case, a crisis of democracy will break out in Europe,” which may lead to anarchy.

Orbán, completely ignoring the wars raging in the Middle East, makes the human traffickers and, for good measure, the human rights activists responsible for the refugee crisis. As I wrote earlier, without the help of locals it is almost impossible to move illegally across borders. This is especially true when it comes to crossing a body of water. So, blaming the traffickers for the flow of escapees is simply foolish. Even in 1956 there were “human traffickers,” some of whom were quite decent.

In the past Orbán often talked about human traffickers as the real source of the refugee crisis but what was new today was that he found another culprit: those activists who helped the asylum seekers on their way to Germany and beyond. “In the United States and in Western Europe there is a whole network of these activists, which includes György Soros, whose name is the hallmark of those who assist everything that makes the nation states weak and who support everything that changes the customary European lifestyle, from human conduct to immigration.” These activists, by helping the immigrants, unwittingly become part of the illegal international human trafficking network. Among the bureaucrats in Brussels there are many “activist types” who think that the present immigration will help create the kind of Europe they imagine as ideal. For him that kind of Europe is unacceptable. His ideal is a nineteenth-century nation state best characterized by his crude demand for “a Hungarian Hungary.”

One can move seamlessly from Orbán’s contrast between Soros’s cosmopolitan attitude and strong (Christian) nation states to the distinction between Jewish internationalism and local nationalism. Cosmopolitanism for Orbán means exactly what it used to mean during the Rákosi and Kádár periods. To understand what that word meant then, let me quote from the Idegen szavak és kifejezések szótára (Dictionary of foreign words and expressions) published in 1973: “cosmopolitanism is a bourgeois ideology that tries to discredit patriotism, national feeling, and national culture.” Jewishness and cosmopolitanism in Eastern Europe were seen as going hand in hand. Compare that with the definition of cosmopolitanism in Wikipedia: “Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human beings belong to a single community based on a shared morality.”Orbán is stuck in the Hungary of 1973.


With this, we can move back to Orbán’s speech delivered to the representatives of Fidesz-affiliated civic organizations, some of which are allied with the Catholic Church. As something of a footnote to his speech he told the audience about the seriousness of the refugee crisis and urged the writers and editors of “Signs of the Times” to include it among the topics to be discussed later at right-wing think tanks. He has been thinking a lot about the topic, but his thoughts haven’t quite jelled. In two weeks he hopes to have them ready in their final form for the next Fidesz Congress.

He is certain that “the European Union’s indecision, bungling or mistaken sizing up of the situation” is not the cause of the endless flow of refugees. After all, European great powers have the brain power, money, and surveillance organizations to know ahead of time about the migrant traffic. He is convinced that the activists in Brussels are intentionally bringing these migrants into Europe. They are not just coming on their own but are being transported. The European left wants to create a new political international world. This is being achieved through an emphasis on human rights, and “the right of escape, migration, movement … is considered to be part of human rights.” Viktor Orbán refuses to accept that view. I hate to think where such restrictions on movement could lead.


Yesterday, in the first of my two-part series on Viktor Orbán’s speech in Kötcse, where Fidesz bigwigs hold a so-called picnic, I concentrated on Viktor Orbán’s ideas about the origins of the refugee crisis. I think we can safely call these ideas fanciful and without foundation. Here I will analyze another theme: the crisis and possible death of liberalism.

A year ago at Tusnádfürdő/Baile Tusnad, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech that caused worldwide consternation. In his speech he rejected democracy as we understand it and championed the cause of “illiberal democracy,” an autocratic form of government in which, although there are free elections, citizens lack civil liberties. The speech created quite a storm and Orbán’s men tried to explain his words away with little success. From there on, he was not too eager to talk about the end of liberal democracy. It seems, however, that his “successes” in his fight against the Islamic invasion have emboldened him and that he is now ready to return to his vision of the new world that will be created as a result of the migration crisis. Viktor Orbán now sees himself as the leader of a new Christian, national era that will follow “the age of liberal blah blah.”

In his view, with the refugee crisis came “the crisis of liberal identity.” What is the connection between the two? I will try to put it more elegantly than Viktor Orbán did. Liberal ideals, among them the right to freedom of movement and universal human rights, brought on this catastrophe, which proves that the continuation of these policies is no longer possible. Right now Europe is rich but weak, which is “the most dangerous combination that can exist.” Liberalism is responsible for Europe’s weakness. And soon enough its riches will be taken away by the less fortunate. If Europe wants to defend itself, it must get rid of its liberal political philosophy.

As things stand now, even conservative politicians are liberals because of the pressure of the media, which is in liberal hands. This liberal tyranny in Europe is so strong that even talking about a turn away from liberalism is dangerous. Only in Hungary can one speak honestly, “where we can sit here and talk about these questions.” Nowhere else in Europe could that happen. One couldn’t call together such a meeting in Germany “because there one cannot say such things.” Even in Poland it would be risky.

Liberalism has been undermining the very foundations of European security, and the refugee crisis made the bankruptcy of liberalism crystal clear. Orbán further elaborated on this theme today in his regular Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió. He called western liberalism “suicidal” and said it will lead to a decline in living standards. Thus, while a year ago he tried to hide his antagonism to liberalism, now Orbán has come out and openly attacked it as the cause of the “migrant invasion.” Obviously, he thinks that foreign public opinion will be more receptive to his anti-liberal talk given the pressures of the refugee crisis.

In the eyes of the United States and its supporters

there is righteousness and there is evil that should be conquered. But at the end, it always turns out that behind it all there is something else: money, oil, raw materials. When they bombed Iraq or for that matter Syria into smithereens their action was anything but beneficial. Yet they demand that the world acknowledge that they are benefactors who stand on the right side. This is the essence of liberal foreign policy.

Orbán is looking at the Euro-Atlantic alliance as an outsider even though Hungary is a member of NATO and therefore an ally of the United States. I really don’t understand how he can cooperate with an evil power like the United States and why he sent a contingent of Hungarian soldiers to Iraq only a couple of months ago. I also don’t understand why he allows American troops into the country because at this very moment there are joint military exercises taking place in Hungary. How long will he be able to play this game?

Orbán spent a considerable amount of time on his plans for Hungary’s future. He came up with four essential ingredients. The first is the necessity of defensible borders. As he put it, “a country that has no borders is not a country.” That means that Hungary will veto any attempt to strengthen geographical and political ties among member states.

The second is “the defense of ethnic and cultural composition,” not only of Hungary but also, he hopes, of Europe. Every nation has the right to decide whether they want to change or not. He seems to think that this is the most important component of his new Europe “because at the very end this is the battle that must be won.” This is a dangerous idea which could affect the free movement of citizens of the European Union’s member states. What if the United Kingdom decides that they want to defend the current ethnic composition of the country and no longer welcome Hungarian “economic immigrants”?

Third, Hungary must remain economically competitive because in these modern times even if you are right and “morally as close as possible to perfection, if you are not successful economically they will crush you.” Economic success, however, is not an end in and of itself. It is only a vehicle for the ultimate goal: national sovereignty.

And the last ingredient of illiberal Hungary is what he calls “everyday patriotism” (mindennapi patriótizmus), to which he immediately added: “Please, don’t misunderstand me.” What is the problem with everyday patriotism? After all, what he seems to mean by it is that Hungarians should give preference to Hungarian products and should discriminate in hiring practices in favor of Hungarians. Why apologize? Well, it is because most Hungarians remember the documentary film of Mikhail Romm called “Ordinary Fascism,” which for the most part took the form of annotated excerpts of archival material that show the rise and fall of fascism, especially in Nazi Germany. The film’s Hungarian title is “Hétköznapi fasizmus” (weekday fascism), in the sense of “ordinary.” Even he felt that the phrase needed some explanation. His everyday patriotism has nothing to do with Romm’s ordinary fascism.

Thousands marching toward Nagykanizsa, Zala County

Thousands marching toward Nagykanizsa, Zala County

Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for the fulfillment of Viktor Orbán’s grand vision. At the moment, all hell has broken loose along the borders and Hungary has become completely isolated. Viktor, you’re doing a heck of a job! Unfortunately, unlike Michael Brown who resigned ten days after George W. Bush thus praised him for his utterly inadequate handling of the Katrina crisis, the Hungarian prime minister is seeing both his power and his domestic popularity increase.

The origins of the refugee crisis according to Viktor Orbán. Part I

Until today only the Magyar Távirati Iroda’s summary of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Kötcse was available, and MTI’s reporting on such events is not always reliable. But today atlatszo.hu published the complete text.

First, I guess I ought to say a few words about Kötcse. Every year the Fidesz leadership makes a pilgrimage to Kötcse, a village about 10 km south of Lake Balaton, for a picnic. Besides the actual picnic there are political speeches, capped with one given by the prime minister himself. Orbán’s speeches at Kötcse are at least as important as his yearly addresses in Tusnádfrürdő/Băile Tușnad. The difference is that the speeches he makes in Kötcse are not advertised and are normally not published, whereas the speeches at Tusnádfürdő are broadcast far and wide and are translated into English in record time.

Perhaps the most significant Orbán speech at Kötcse was delivered in September 2009. It foreshadowed Viktor Orbán’s long-term plans for remaking Hungary. In it he also stated in no uncertain terms that he was planning a political system that would be in place for a couple of decades. He painted a picture of the future in which there would be none of those endless and useless political debates. I wrote about this Kötcse speech three times. First, when I read the MTI summary of it and was already alarmed and twice in February 2010 when Viktor Orbán allowed its publication in a pro-Fidesz literary magazine.

Viktor Orbán arrives in Kötcse, September 5, 2015 / MTI / Photo György Varga

Viktor Orbán arrives in Kötcse, September 5, 2015 / MTI  Photo György Varga

In these speeches Orbán almost always tries to explain that his audience is in an extraordinarily privileged position: they are getting a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind and are allowed access to his most private thoughts. Moreover, here among friends and comrades, he is able to express himself freely. Here he can talk about matters “about which it is not advisable to speak in public.” Indeed, Orbán is correct. Enlightened people are not xenophobic and don’t advocate racial purity.

Of course, even in this speech Orbán remains careful not to sound either xenophobic or racist. He chooses his words carefully. But the overall impression is still that of a highly prejudiced man. He wouldn’t go as far as the fundamentalists who talk about “a crusade” against Islam. He, as “a moderate man,” would speak only about the problem of the “Islamization of Europe.”

Orbán sees himself as the standard-bearer of this defensive war: “this is what Europe demands of us, Hungarians.” Not just from Hungarians in general “but from the elected officials of this country.” Although he and his fellow politicians have faced many challenges and conquered them, he believes that this current crisis is the greatest demand he has had to face to date. Because as a result of this crisis  and his response to it a new era will begin: “The Christian-national idea and mentality will regain its dominance not just in Hungary but in the whole of Europe.”

One often has the feeling that Viktor Orbán doesn’t have a grasp of Hungarian intellectual and political history and doesn’t realize what the “Christian-national idea,” fashionable in right-wing circles during the interwar period, meant. Otherwise, he wouldn’t appeal to it constantly. The “Christian-national idea” was born in the early twenties and had more to do with anti-Semitism than with Christianity.

Viktor Orbán, it seems, wants to spread the gospel of the “Christian-national idea and mentality” across the European Union. He wants to be in the forefront of European politics, someone who can reshape the face of Europe just as he did that of Hungary.

Orbán’s explanation for this mass migration is telling. It is not, he claims, the wars and terrorism in the Middle East and Africa that made masses of people run for safety, first to the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and then farther west, given the hopelessness of their lot there. According to him, the origin of this mass movement lies in globalization. “For years we have told them that ‘the world is a global village’ … we have talked about universal human rights to which everybody is entitled. We forced our ideology on them: freedom is the most important thing, we said. We bombed the hell out of those who didn’t accept our ideology…. We created the internet, we declared the freedom of information, and we told them that every human being should have access to it. We sent them our soap operas. They watch what we do…. We sent our TV stars into their homes…. they now think that our virtual space is also their space and that in this virtual space everybody can meet anybody else. … These people, partly because of our culture lent to them or forced upon them, are no longer tied to their own land and to their past.”

In Orbán’s ideal world, the people streaming into Europe should have remained ignorant of the world, they shouldn’t strive for freedom, and they shouldn’t be the beneficiaries of the kinds of human rights we are entitled to. What can one say, except to express outrage. It is shameful that this man is the leader of a European nation that is so proud of its love of freedom.

To be continued