Tag Archives: european convention on human rights

The statement of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe on Hungary’s law on the churches

Every year the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) organizes the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM). This year the meeting takes place in Warsaw. One of the participating organizations is the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF). They prepared an “intervention” which they will present on September 30 at one of the working sessions entitled “Tolerance and non-discrimination II/Intolerance against Christians and members of other religions.”

This is the text of FOREF’s recommendations and intervention:

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foref

Hungary: New Religious Law at Variance with OSCE Standards and
the European Convention on Human Rights

Recommendations:

That the Government of Hungary, and specifically the Minister of Human Capacities, place back on the official registry of incorporated churches included in the appendix of Act CCVI (206) of 2011 those churches deregistered unconstitutionally and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by Parliament in 2011. Hungary should honor its international legal commitment to the European Convention and abide by the Court’s decision.

That Hungary should modify its church law so that legal recognition of churches is not determined by 2/3 vote of Parliament, something criticized in both the European Court and the Hungarian Constitutional Court.

That participating States to assist Hungary to harmonize its laws in accordance with the Helsinki standards and international human rights law.

Intervention:

The Forum for Religious Freedom Europe (FOREF) is an independent, secular, civil society formation dedicated to defending the freedom of religion in accordance with international law.  We wish to express our deep concern about policies of the government of Hungary that violate Human Dimension commitments undertaken by the participating States in the Helsinki Final Act and in the Madrid, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Maastricht documents.  These policies have resulted in arbitrary discrimination against religious communities, and have given the state illegal and inappropriate power to interfere in religious life.

In 2011, the Hungarian Parliament passed a new law on “the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.”  The law abolished the previous practices of treating religious communities equally and registering them through the courts, and instituted a tiered system that discriminates between “incorporated churches” and others that enjoy fewer rights and privileges, and which refers determination of “incorporated church” status to a 2/3-majority vote in Parliament. The law resulted in the de-registration of at least two hundred churches, including, inter alia Methodist, Pentecostal, Adventists and reform Jewish churches, as well as Buddhist and Hinduist congregations.  It has exposed religious organizations to bureaucratic harassment.
In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 churches that had been deregistered unconstitutionally were therefore still churches.  According to point 217 of the Hungarian Court’s decision,

One of the requirements of possessing church status is that the minister must place religious communities that possess such status on the registry. Since, as a consequence of the Constitutional Court’s present decision, the provision is no longer in effect which stipulates the minister’s act of registration is tied exclusively to Parliament’s recognition of a church, there is no legal obstacle preventing religious communities, whose applications were rejected by the decision of Parliament, but who, as a result of the retroactive effect of this decision have not lost their church status … from reporting their data to the minister who can then register them.

Unfortunately, the government has deliberately disregarded the Court’s orders. The Ministry of Human Capacities has rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered churches to be placed on the registry of incorporated churches (Magyarországi Evangélium Testvérközösség, Budapesti Autonóm Gyülekezet, Isten Gyülekezete Pünkösdi Egyház, Fény és Szeretet Egyháza).   In a response worthy of a novel by Franz Kafka, the Ministry stated that it could not place the groups on the registry because according to the law, incorporated churches are already on the registry, and the churches making the request were not on the registry.  Of course, the reason they are not on the registry is because the government will not place them there. In yet an even more Kafkaesque twist, when these deregistered churches have turned to the Hungarian courts, the courts have consistently ruled that the Ministry should have placed them on the official registry. But because the courts can’t force the Ministry to register the churches, it has ordered that the churches should resubmit their request to the Hungarian Government, which can, of course, refuse again to comply with the written request ad infinitum.

Instead of adhering to the rule of law and abiding with the highest court, the Hungarian Parliament amended Hungary’s Basic Law in a way that explicitly grants Parliament the right to render arbitrary decisions concerning church registration.   The procedure by which Parliament determines the legal status of individual churches was also criticized explicitly by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) as incompatible with the standards of due process (Opinion 664/2012 par. 76-77).  According to the European Court of Human Rights the scheme of parliamentary recognition “inherently carries with it the disregard of neutrality” (Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary, par. 102).  The Basic Law is thus in blatant violation of a fundamental principle of religious freedom and human rights.  No legislative body should have the power to rule over religious freedom.

In April 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that that Hungarian Parliament’s deregistration of legally recognized churches constituted an interference with those groups’ fundamental rights as secured by articles 9 and 11 of the European Convention (Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others v. Hungary). Hungary appealed the decision to the Grand Chamber.  The Grand Chamber rejected that appeal in September 2014, so the decision is now final and binding.
In light of the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as our common Helsinki principles that uphold the freedom of religious communities from discrimination, and given the ruling by Hungary’s own Constitutional Court, FOREF respectfully asks that the Government of Hungary, and specifically the Minister of Human Capacities, Zoltán Balog, place those churches deregistered unconstitutionally by Parliament in 2011, in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, back on the official registry of incorporated churches included in the appendix of Act CCVI (206) of 2011. Hungary should honor its international legal commitment to the European Convention and abide by the Court’s decision.

Furthermore, Hungary should modify its church law so that legal recognition of churches is not determined by 2/3 vote of Parliament, something criticized in both the European Court and the Hungarian court.

We ask the support of participating States to assist Hungary to harmonize its laws in accordance with the Helsinki standards and international human rights law.  Thank you for your attention.

Viktor Orbán is getting ready for a fight

If anyone thought that a second victory, especially with two-thirds parliamentary majority, would slow Viktor Orbán down, he was sadly mistaken. In fact, if it is possible, since his reelection he has been surpassing his own past performance as far as attacks on the European Union are concerned.

In the last few weeks numerous articles have appeared, especially in Népszabadság, on the possible shape of the third Orbán government. Most of the reporting is based on hearsay, but a couple of personnel changes seem to be certain. First, Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary for public education, has finished her controversial activities in the Ministry of Human Resources. Second, the mysterious minister of national development about whom nobody knew anything turned out to be a flop. If you recall, no one knew her first name for weeks because she was introduced to the public only as Mrs. László Németh. By the way, she was the one who signed the agreement on Paks with Gazprom. And then there is János Martonyi, the one cabinet member in whom European and American politicians still had some trust. Mind you, his words didn’t mean much because he was stripped of practically all power to conduct Hungary’s foreign policy. According to the latest, it looks as if his replacement will be Tibor Navracsics.

I consider Navracsics’s move to the foreign ministry a demotion for the former close associate of Viktor Orbán. By now the foreign ministry is largely impotent, and I hear rumors to the effect that it might be further stripped of its competence. Earlier Navracsics had a position of real power. He was entrusted with the position of whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation. The ministry of administration and justice, which Navracsics headed during Orbán’s second term, had a dual mandate. On the one hand, it was supposed to oversee the restructuring of the entire public administration and, on the other, it was responsible for preparing bills for parliament. At least in theory. Most of the hundreds of bills presented to parliament in the last four years were in fact proposed by individual members. Their authors were most likely outside law firms. It seems that the ministry’s chief job in the legal field was not so much drafting bills as battling with Brussels over legislation the Hungarian parliament enacted.

In the third Orbán government the ministry of administration and justice will be dismantled. In its place there will be a separate ministry of justice, and the section of the ministry that dealt with the country’s territorial administration will be transferred to the prime minister’s office. This ministry’s chief job will be, according to Viktor Orbán, to concentrate on future legal battles with the European Union. He already warned his people that the European Union will try to force the Hungarian government to undo the lowering of utility prices which assured Viktor Orbán his resounding victory at the last election.

Hungary seems to lose one legal battle after the other in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, which functions under the jurisdiction of the Council of Europe. The latest is the question of  life sentences without the possibility of parole. The European Court of Human Rights, in a unanimous ruling, found the law inhumane and degrading. The court is not against life sentences as such, but they held that courts should be allowed to review life sentences in order to assess whether prisoners had made such significant progress toward rehabilitation that their continued detention might no longer be justified. There are perhaps 40 such cases in Hungary at the moment, and if all the “lifers” turned to Strasbourg it could be a very costly affair for the Hungarian state.

Viktor Orbán remains adamant in the face of the court ruling since he knows that, if depended on the Hungarian public, the majority would be only too glad to reintroduce the death penalty. Therefore, Orbán fiercely attacked the ruling and blamed the European Union for preventing Hungary from having its own laws. He repeated his favorite claim that in the European Union “the rights of those who commit crimes are placed above the rights of innocent people and victims.” Friday morning during his customary interview on Magyar Rádió he elaborated on the theme and went even further. He said that the European Union forbids capital punishment, although he personally is convinced that it is a serious deterrent.

In cases like this, one is not quite sure whether Orbán is ignorant of the facts or for political reasons is simply lying. It is not the European Union that forbids the death penalty. Article 1 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms specifies that “The death penalty shall be abolished. No-one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed.” The Council of Europe is a signatory to this convention. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights functions not under the European Union but under the Council of Europe of which Hungary is a member. And quite aside from all this, the Hungarian Constitutional Court on its own volition abolished the death penalty in 1990. So, either Orbán doesn’t know any of this or he for political reasons is trying to turn his people against the European Union while he is campaigning for the European parliamentary election. He must know that the reintroduction of the death penalty in Hungary is out of the question.

But before his fight against Brussels and Strasbourg on utility prices, pálinka distillation, acacia trees, and life sentences without parole, Orbán has another fight ahead of him which he may easily lose. It is his opposition to the election of Jean-Claude Juncker for the presidency of the European Commission. Juncker is the candidate of the European People’s Party, which currently has the largest caucus in the European Parliament. It has been clear for some time that Juncker is not the favorite politician of Viktor Orbán. Already on Friday in his interview he mentioned that just because Juncker is the head of the 212-member EPP caucus it doesn’t mean that the Christian Democrats have to nominate him. Juncker is far too liberal for Orbán, who would prefer the far-right Joseph Daul, the Alsatian farmer who is an admirer and defender of the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán thus made up his mind that he and the Fidesz MEPs will try to prevent the election of Juncker in the likely event that EPP is again the largest bloc in the European Parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Today he announced his decision to try block Juncker’s nomination and/or election. I myself doubt that he will succeed at the nomination level. As for the election, currently EPP has 212 seats and Fidesz’s estimated 10-12 MEPs will vote against him. Juncker will have to get at least 376 votes to be elected, so he will need supporters outside of EPP. The socialist Martin Schulz will also look for supporters outside of the socialist caucus. It looks as if the Fidesz group will lobby against both Juncker and Schulz in favor of some other EPP politician. I’m sure that Orbán’s favorite would be Daul, but I think he is too far to the right to have a chance at either the nomination or the election.

So, what will happen if Juncker wins? Orbán, even if Fidesz MEPs were to support Juncker, would have a harder time with him than he had with Barroso. The same is true if Schulz becomes president. Actually the two men’s views are rather close. Both are miles away from Viktor Orbán’s worldview. In either case, Orbán will be even more unhappy with Brussels than he has been until now.

Monitoring and an infringement procedure seem the likely fate of Hungary

There are signs that Strasbourg and Brussels have decided to change gears and speed up the slow moving vehicles of the Council of Europe and the European Union.

It was Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland of the Council of Europe who was the first to indicate on Monday that the latest amendments to the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian  Constitution are an inadequate answer to the most recent objections of the Council and the European Commission. In an interview with the German liberal paper, Der Tagelsspiegel, he indicated that as far as political advertisement is concerned, Hungary’s attempt to make a distinction between European and national elections is unacceptable. From the interview it also became evident that German President Joachim Gauck, who visited the Council of Europe the other day, shared his own worries about the Hungarian situation with Jagland. Still, I must say that Mr. Jagland is naive if he thinks that because Klubrádió managed to retain its frequency all is well on the media front, that “the freedom of expression is now assured and the press can work without any hindrance.” 

Council of Europe2

A couple of words first about the Council of Europe; even the Council’s website admits that there is a lot of confusion about the Council and its relationship to the European Union. The Council came into being in 1949 with a membership of ten countries, but by now it covers virtually the entire European continent (47 members). The Council of Europe “seeks to develop throughout Europe common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference texts on the protection of individuals.” If in a member state questions about democracy, the rule of law, or a violation of human rights surface, the Council of Europe may set up either a temporary or a permanent monitoring mechanism. Until now such monitoring procedures were applied only in countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union and in some countries in the Balkans. Now it seems that the so-called monitoring committee suggested bringing to a vote in the parliament of the Council of Europe whether Orbán Viktor’s Hungary should be monitored.

The vote in the committee was very close. The decision to move forward passed by a single vote, mostly because the members of the European People’s Party to which Fidesz belongs decided to vote against the resolution en bloc. The final word naturally lies with the parliament as a whole. The vote will take place sometime in June, about the same time that the Venice Commission’s final report is released. I should add that the Venice Commission, which is composed of constitutional and international law experts, is an independent advisory body to the Council of Europe.

Meanwhile the European Commission’s own legal team has also been busy, and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said this morning that the legal analysis “will lead, probably, to infringement procedures and this will happen rather quickly.” She also indicated that she had already written to Budapest that a preliminary analysis raised questions about the rule of law in Hungary.

We often talk about infringement procedures, but I suspect that we don’t fully understand what they entail. Since the European Commission seems to be fairly certain that the legal changes in Hungary warrant such a move, it is time to get familiar with the details. Each member state is responsible for the implementation of EU law within its own legal system; it is the European Commission that is responsible for ensuring that EU law is correctly applied. If a member state fails to comply, the Commission has “powers of  its own to try to bring the infringement to an end and, where necessary, they refer the case to the European Court of Justice.” First, a letter of formal notice is presented to the member state in which the Commission asks the member state to comply within a given time limit. If the member state fails to comply, the Commission will refer the case to the European Court of Justice.

All in all, although by Brussels standards these procedures are taking less time than usual, it will be a long time before they bear fruit, if at all. Moreover, Orbán still has many tricks up his sleeve. Just wait until Brussels takes a good look at the electoral law. After all, the text of the law is now available in the Magyar Közlöny. There will be many unpleasant surprises there, I’m sure.

Let me shift topics to end on a more humorous note. Actually, just like everything else in Orbán’s Hungary, it has its tragic elements.

www.diosdifidesz.hu

www.diosdifidesz.hu

I’m sure that you all remember that the Fidesz ideologues have been targeting street names they consider to be ideologically unacceptable. Not surprisingly, the forbidden names are practically all connected with the left. At least I didn’t see Miklós Horthy or Adolf Hitler on the list. To the everlasting shame of the Historical Institute attached to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, it accepted the odious task of determining whose name can be used and whose cannot. Here is the list.

Good beginning: Alkotmány (Constitution), decision: usable. Reason: although its use as a street name became frequent during the socialist period it cannot be forbidden because then we would have to consider the word “constitution” directly connected to dictatorship. Moreover, in this case the name of the Alkotmánybíróság (Constitutional Court) would also have to be to be changed. 🙂

The learned historians decided that the word “Fejlődés” which means “development” is OK even though it was also used during the socialist period. “Liberation” (Felszabadulás) is out, but  “Haladás” (Progress) and “Győzelem (Victory) are acceptable. I was also happy to hear that Attila József, Hungary’s greatest poet, can have a street or square of his own although he was at one point a member of the illegal communist party in the 1930s.

“Köztársaság” (Republic) is still allowed. But “Partisan” is out. And Mihály Károlyi is definitely out. After all, they consider him responsible for Trianon, a real falsification of history. György Lukács is on the forbidden list even though he was a member of the Imre Nagy government in 1956 and consequently narrowly avoided execution. Writers and poets are not spared either: Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovski are blacklisted. Karl Marx is “usable but worrisome” (használható, de aggályos).  May 1 is OK. I was relieved to hear that the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) was spared! Nice to hear that “Szabadság” (Freedom) is not yet banned but let’s just wait! I might add that several social democratic politicians active before World War II are also banned.

A real testament to democracy in action!