Tag Archives: Helsinki Commission

President János Áder signed the anti-CEU law despite worldwide protests and massive demonstrations

President János Áder signed the changes to the higher education bill that the Hungarian parliament passed in 48 hours. His decision to do so didn’t come as a total surprise because Magyar Nemzet learned a couple of days ago that Áder found no legal reasons to reject the proposed law and either send it back to parliament for reconsideration or to the Constitutional Court for review. Still, I hoped that Áder would have the courage to make a symbolic gesture, thereby manifesting a modicum of independence, but he didn’t even dare to do that much. I suspect that the pressure on him coming from Viktor Orbán was considerable. Orbán is so obsessed with his crusade against the liberal, democratic worldview, to him symbolized by George Soros and, by extension, the university he founded, that he is throwing caution to the wind.

Those people who think that, with Áder’s signature, the case of Central European University is closed are, of course, wrong. This is just the beginning of something that may end very badly for Viktor Orbán. Yesterday 80,000 people went out to demonstrate. About half way through the demonstration it became obvious that the participants weren’t just fighting for the continued existence of a university or for the academic freedom of Hungarian universities in general. They were speaking out against the regime and what it represents.

This is a clash of two worlds: a nationalistic, xenophobic society hamstrung by an autocrat whose whims may lead the country into a diplomatic no man’s land as well as economic ruin and a free society governed by laws informed by the liberal principles of democracy. Orbán’s attack on Central European University, George Soros, and the civic organization is all about this struggle. For Orbán it is imperative to win this war. Even if his dream of transforming Europe into segmented little nation states led by far-right political groups does not materialize, as he hoped last year, he will at least stop the evil forces of liberalism at the borders of Hungary.

Orbán is confident in his own popularity and the strength of the regime he has managed to build in the last seven years. He thinks he is invincible. And why not? He sees the opposition as small, weak, and powerless. It seems that even the immense crowd on the streets of Budapest didn’t persuade him otherwise, despite the fact that the composition of this crowd was very different from earlier gatherings of mostly retirees.

Some people compare yesterday’s demonstration to the one organized against the internet tax in the fall of 2015, but the comparison doesn’t stand up. First of all, the participants in the 2015 demonstration were exclusively young internet users. Second, the demonstration was organized, in the final analysis, for grubby reasons. Third, it didn’t morph into a general political demonstration. Yesterday’s demonstration, by contrast, included young, middle-aged, and old people. They went out to show their support for ideals: free university, free thought, freedom in general, the European Union. And, finally, at one point, the gathering became a political demonstration against the regime. They sent both Orbán and the Russians straight to hell. The old 1956 slogan resurfaced: “Ruszkik haza!”

This is serious stuff that may end very badly for Viktor Orbán, but there is no way that he will abandon his holy war against the very notion of an open society. To him, this is a struggle for survival. Today’s Magyar Idők called the enemies of Viktor Orbán “the fifth column,” which obviously must be eliminated. János Somogyi, a retired lawyer and a frequent op-ed contributor, targeted the Helsinki Commission but in passing wove into his story the European Court of Human Rights and its Hungarian judge, András Sajó, who taught at Central European University before his appointment to the court. Somogyi described the situation at the moment this way: “War rages between the penniless [nincstelen] democratic forces, the will of the people, and the aggressive minority of immensely wealthy liberal imperialistic forces. Behind the Helsinki Commission there is the immensely wealthy liberal empire while the strength of the popular will is in the truth. In wartime, the rules of war must be applied because this is the only way to bring the truth to victory.” It is this war that Viktor Orbán is leading. It is a war in which enemies must be eliminated, according to the rules of war.

The world is looking at what’s going on in Hungary with growing concern, and in the past few months Germany has been translating its concern into action. Magyar Nemzet reported today that a meeting scheduled for May 5 between German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, has been cancelled. In February Angela Merkel celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Germany’s signing ties of friendship with Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but only with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Viktor Orbán was not invited. According to Magyar Nemzet, Szijjártó at the end of last year and the beginning of this year tried four times to initiate talks with the former German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to no avail. It is also unlikely that Angela Merkel will visit Hungary this year as was originally planned.

Hungary’s relations with Germany are just as bad as they are with the United States, but at least Orbán never aspired to close relations with the United States–not, that is, until Donald Trump became president. But Germany is another matter. Orbán announced on several occasions that he considers Germany the most important pillar of Hungarian foreign policy.

German cooperation is not the only critical pillar of the Orbán regime that is in danger of collapsing. If they start to fall, so will Viktor Orbán.

April 10, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next victims: The civic organizations

The Orbán government, at least on the surface, is not intimidated by the growing criticism of and demonstrations against its hurriedly accepted amendments to the law on higher education, which makes Central European University’s life in Hungary impossible. On the contrary, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, attacked those who raised their voices in defense of the university. For example, when Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesman of the German government, expressed her government’s concern over the amendments, Kovács fired back, saying that it looks as if George Soros can mislead even the German government with his lies. He also called it regrettable that a serious and responsible government such as the government of Germany would make such a statement.

In addition to its legislation against CEU, the Orbán government decided to proceed with its long-planned move against those civic organizations that receive financial assistance from abroad. I began collecting information on this issue sometime in February when I spotted a statement by László Trócsányi, minister of justice. He accused the NGOs of being political actors without any legitimacy as opposed to parliament, which is elected by the people. Soon enough Viktor Orbán himself attacked them. By late March the situation seemed grave enough for a group of scholars from the United States and Great Britain to sign a statement, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.” What was remarkable about this statement was that a fair number of the signatories came from decidedly conservative organizations and think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Adam Smith Institute. Their concern didn’t impress Viktor Orbán, who in Warsaw at the summit of the Visegrád Four countries accused the NGOs of being in the “migrant business,” which would require new regulations to ensure the “transparency” of their finances.

One didn’t have to wait long for follow-up action. On April 2, 444.hu obtained a copy of a proposal that would regulate all NGOs that receive foreign financial support. The reason given was long-winded and confused. Basically, the government was afraid that foreign interest groups might be able to influence Hungarian civic organizations to perform tasks that don’t serve the interests of the community but only the selfish interests of these foreign groups. Foreign-funded NGOs thus “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.” For good measure, the proposed bill cited the danger of money laundering, financing extremist groups, and lending a helping hand to terrorists. The complete text of the draft can be read here.

HVG, with the help of its legal experts, took a quick look at the draft and decided that the bill in its present form doesn’t make the affected NGOs’ existence impossible. It is just nasty and humiliating. One of the humiliating items is that every time associates of these NGOs make a statement, give an interview, or provide informational material they must identify themselves as representing “an organization supported from abroad.” The experts decided that this is not as bad as the original idea, which apparently would have called the associates of these organizations “foreign agents.”

Spokesmen for these organizations were not as optimistic as HVG’s legal experts. According to Amnesty International, this new law can have the same devastating effect as the Russian law had after its introduction. Áron Demeter, Amnesty International’s human rights expert, considers the proposed bill a serious violation of the right of association and freedom of expression. Márta Pardavi of the Helsinki Commission regards the notion of “foreign subsidy” far too vague. It looks as if even EU grants are considered to be foreign subsidies and would thus be viewed as “foreign interference” that endangers Hungary’s national security. Or, there is a fund that was created from the budgets of the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four countries. Is this also considered to be “foreign money”? She noted that churches and sports clubs are exempt from any such restrictions. Political think tanks and media outlets that also receive sizable amounts of money from abroad are exempt as well, although, as Pardavi rightly points out, they have a more direct influence on politics than, for example, the Helsinki Commission.

As it stands now, any civic organization that receives more than 7.2 million forints (about $25,000) a year from outside of Hungary must describe itself as an “organization supported from abroad.” Each time an organization receives any money from abroad, it must report the transaction to the courts within 15 days. The details of each organization’s finances will be listed on a new website called Civil Információs Portál. If an organization misses this deadline it can be fined and, in certain cases, can be taken off the list, which means that it will be shut down for at least five years.

Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, invited all those parties that have individual caucuses for a discussion of the bill. At the meeting, held this afternoon, it became clear that none of the opposition parties wants anything to do with the bill, which will be submitted to parliament this week. Even Jobbik said “no” to the proposal. As Gulyás Gergely said after the meeting, “George Soros’s hands even reached as far as Jobbik.” As the Fidesz statement insisted, “every Hungarian must know who George Soros’s men are; what kind of money and what kinds of interests are behind these organizations supported from abroad.” The bill will be voted into law before the week is out.

But, as 444.hu pointed out, by attacking the NGOs the Orbán government is treading on dangerous ground because Hungary in 1999, during the first Orbán government, signed the Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the charter we find the following: “We pledge ourselves to enhance the ability of NGOs to make their full contribution to the further development of civil society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.” 444.hu predicts that this piece of legislation, if passed, will prompt even greater protest in Europe and the United States than the Hungarian government’s action against CEU.

Given Hungarian political developments in the last seven years, I assume it doesn’t come as a great surprise that one of the key findings of Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit 2017” is that, with regard to democracy, “Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region,” behind Bulgaria and Romania. The trajectory of Hungary’s fall from grace is shown below.

April 5, 2017

Senator Ben Cardin: Human Rights in Hungary

The following remarks by Ben Cardin, senator from Maryland, were delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Friday, December 13, 2013. Senator Cardin is deeply interested in foreign affairs and sits on the Committee on Foreign Relations. He is also the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, otherwise known as the Helsinki Commission. Senator Cardin addressed the Senate in this capacity on Friday.

* * *

US Senate

Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, earlier this year I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on the situation in Hungary. Today, I would like to revisit some of the issues addressed by our witnesses.

Since the April 2010 elections, Hungary has undertaken the most dramatic legal transformation that Europe has seen in decades. A new Constitution was passed with votes of the ruling party alone, and even that has already been amended five times. More than 700 new laws have been passed, including laws on the media, religion, and civic associations. There is a new civil code and a new criminal code. There is an entirely new electoral framework. The magnitude and scope of these changes have understandably put Hungary under a microscope.

At the Helsinki Commission’s hearing in March, I examined concerns that these changes have undermined Hungary’s system of democratic checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, and freedoms of the media and religion. I also received testimony about rising revisionism and extremism. I heard from Jozsef Szajer, a Member of the European Parliament who represented the Hungarian Government at the hearing. Princeton constitutional law expert Kim Lane Scheppelle, Dr. Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from Freedom House presented compelling testimony.

Unfortunately, developments in Hungary remain troubling.

Even though Hungary’s religion law was tweaked after the Constitutional Court struck down parts of it, it retains a discriminatory two-tier system. Moreover, the Parliament is empowered with the extraordinary and, for all practical purposes, unreviewable power to decide what is and what is not a religion.

This month, the government announced it is launching an investigation into the Methodist Evangelical Church, a church persecuted during communist times. Today, the Methodist Evangelical Church is known for its outreach to Roma, work with the homeless and is one of the largest charitable organizations in Hungary. As I noted at the Helsinki Commission hearing in March, it is also one of the hundreds of religious groups stripped of official recognition after the passage of Hungary’s new religion law.

The church has now complied with submitting the necessary number of supporters required by the law and, as a reply, the government has announced an unidentified “expert” will conduct an investigation into the church’s beliefs and tenets. This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called “Accepted Church” opens the door for further repressive measures.

Veneration of Hungary’s wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, along with other anti-Semitic figures such as writer Jozsef Nyiro, continues. In November, a statue of Hungarian Jewish poet Miklos Radnoti, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis at the end of 1944, was rammed with a car and broken in half. At roughly the same time, extremists staged a book burning of his works along with other materials they called “Zionist publications.” At the beginning of December, two menorahs were vandalized in Budapest.

Reflecting the climate of extremism, more than 160 Hungarian nationals have been found by Canada this year to have a well-founded fear of persecution. Almost all are Romani, but the refugees include an 80-year-old award winning Hungarian Jewish writer who received death threats after writing about anti-Semitism in Hungary, and was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Budapest on an initiative from the far-right Jobbik party, supported by the votes of the ruling Fidesz party.

While there are many who suggest the real problem comes from the extremist opposition party Jobbik, and not the ruling government, it seems that some members of Fidesz have contributed to a rise in intolerance.

I am particularly troubled that the government-created Media Council, consisting entirely of Fidesz delegated members, has threatened ATV–an independent television station–with punitive fines if it again characterizes Jobbik as extremist. If you can’t even talk about what is extremist or anti-Semitic in Hungary without facing legal sanctions, how can you combat extremism and anti-Semitism? Moreover, this decision serves to protect Jobbik from critical debate in the advance of next year’s elections. Why?

Other new measures further stifle free speech.

Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, last month Hungary amended its defamation law to allow for the imposition of prison terms up to 3 years.

The imposition of jail time for speech offenses was a hallmark of the communist era. During the post-communist transition, the Helsinki Commission consistently urged OSCE countries to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws entirely. In 2004, for example, the Helsinki Commission wrote to Minister of Justice Peter Barandy regarding the criminal convictions of Andras Bencsik and Laszlo Attila Bertok.

This new law, raced through under an expedited procedure in the wake of a by-election controversy in which allegations of voter manipulation were traded, was quickly criticized by the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. I share her concerns that these changes to the criminal code may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society and are inconsistent with OSCE commitments.

Hungary was once held up as a model of peaceful democratic transition and is situated in a region of Europe where the beacon of freedom is still sought by many today. I hope Hungary will return to a leadership role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy.

Statements and testimonies at the United States Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary

Below you will find all the statements and testimonies from yesterday’s hearing before the United States Helsinki Commission. The topic was “The Trajectory of Democracy–Why Hungary Matters.” In addition to the statements and testimonies that were delivered in person, there were two testimonies submitted in writing, one by David H. Baer of Texas Lutheran University on the new law on churches and one by Frank Koszorus, Jr. of the American Hungarian Federation.

Opening statement of Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission

Statement by the Honorable Benjamin L. Cardin

Chairman

 Hearing before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

 “The Trajectory of Democracy – Why Hungary Matters”

March 19, 2013

 

The progressive inclusion of post-communist countries into transatlantic and European institutions reflected the expansion of democracy and shared values, as well as the realization of aspirations long denied.  Indeed, in 1997, the Helsinki Commission held a series of hearings to examine the historic transition to democracy of post-communist candidate countries like Hungary prior to NATO expansion.

I was among the many in the United States who cheered when Hungary joined NATO in 1999, and again when Hungary joined the EU in 2004 – illustrating not only Hungary’s post-communist transformation, but also Hungary’s ability to join alliances of its own choosing and follow a path of its own design.  Hungary has been a valued friend and partner as we have sought to extend the benefits of democracy in Europe, and elsewhere around the globe.

But today, concerns have arisen among Hungary’s friends about the trajectory of democracy in that country.

Over the past two years, Hungary has instituted sweeping and controversial changes to its constitutional framework, effectively re-making the country’s entire legal foundation.  This has included the adoption of a new constitution – already amended multiple times including the adoption of a far-reaching Fourth Amendment just days ago – and hundreds of new laws on everything from elections to the media to religious organizations.

More than that, these changes have effected the independence of judiciary, role of the constitutional court, the balance of power, and the basic checks-and-balances that were in place to safeguard democracy.

It seems to me that any country that would undertake such voluminous and profound changes would find itself in the spotlight.

But these changes have also coincided with a rise of extremism and intolerance in Hungary.  Mob demonstrations have continued to terrorize Romani neighborhoods.  Fascist-era figures are promoted in public discourse and the public place.  A new law on religion striped scores of minority faiths of their legal status as religious organizations over night including, initially, Coptic Christians, Mormons, and the Reformed Jewish Congregation. Most have been unable to regain legal status, including the Evangelical Methodist Fellowship, a church that had to survive as an “illegal” church during the communist period and today serves many Romani communities.

At the same time, the constituency of Hungary has been re-defined on an ethnic basis: citizenship has been extended into neighboring states on an ethnic basis, and voting rights now follow that.

As the late Ambassador Max Kampelman once observed, minorities are like the canary in the coal mine.  In the end, democracy and minority rights stand or fall together.  If respect for minorities falls, democracy can’t be far behind.  And the rights of persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority groups will likely suffer in the absence of a robust democracy.

Max Kampelman, who was long a friend of the Helsinki Commission, served with distinction as the head of the U.S. delegation to the seminal 1990 Copenhagen meeting, where some of the most important democracy commitments ever articulated in the OSCE were adopted:

The participating States “consider that the rule of law does not mean merely a formal legality which assures regularity and consistency in the achievement and enforcement of democratic order, but justice based on the recognition and full acceptance of the supreme value of the human personality and guaranteed by institutions providing a framework for its fullest expression.  They reaffirm that democracy is an inherent element of the rule of law.”

At issue now is whether Hungary’s democratically elected government is steadily eroding the democratic norms to which Hungary has committed itself, in the OSCE and elsewhere.  And we care about democracy in Hungary, for the people in Hungary as well as for the example it sets everywhere we seek to promote democracy.

I welcome all of our witnesses here today, and I appreciate that you are giving of your considerable expertise, your insights, and your time.

I especially appreciate that our second witness, József Szájer, has been asked by the Government of Hungary to represent it here today.   As one of the framers of the constitution, we could have no more authoritative voice on the issues we are discussing, and I thank you from coming from the European Parliament where you serve to share your views.

Our first witness will be Mr. Brent Hartley, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, followed by Mr. Szájer.

Our final panel will include Dr. Kim Lane Scheppelle, an expert on constitutional law from Princeton University, Ms. Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from Freedom House, and Dr. Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Testimony of József Szájer, member of the European Parliament

Testimony of the Hon. József Szájer Member of the European Parliament (HU-EPP before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Hearing on

“Trajectory of Democracy: Why Hungary Matters” Washington D.C., March 19, 2013

Chairman Cardin, Co-Chairman Smith and distinguished members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Distinguished Members, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is an honor for me to appear here to share my views on the state of Hungarian democracy. I am a founding member of the now governing party, Fidesz, which was the first opposition organization during our transition to democracy 25 years ago. I am also Member of the European Parliament elected directly by the citizens of Hungary. In my capacity as member of the Hungarian Parliament, I have participated in the preparation of almost every major constitutional change over the last twenty years. Recently, I had the great honor of being the Chairman of the Drafting Committee on the Fundamental Law of Hungary, the new Constitution of my country, which is a subject matter of this hearing.

I want to underline that Hungary has been a constitutional democracy, respecting the rule of law and the rights of the citizen ever since the transition to democracy more than twenty years ago. Anyone who might claim otherwise should be encouraged to come to Hungary and make a first- hand experience, to study our difficult past and recent history, to ask the Hungarians themselves. This is an invitation I warmly extend to the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

Hungary is a nation with one of the longest, one thousand year old constitutional tradition, which my country is very proud of. One of the finest pieces of our historic constitution, the Bulla Aurea (our Magna Charta) dates back to 1222. Hungary boasts the first ever constitutional document on religious tolerance, the Torda Declaration from the sixteenth century. Our new constitution follows the steps of these historic achievements. It aims also to restore one thousand years of historic constitutional continuity which was lost in 1944 as a consequence of the Nazi, and the subsequent Soviet occupation of my country.

As a legislator myself, I would like to express my appreciation for your interest in the sovereign act of the Hungarian nation’s historic constitution making enterprise. I admire your great Constitution and we held it as a compass in creating our new one. Elected representatives of our great, freedom loving nations like the American and the Hungarian should always find appropriate occasions to exchange, on equal grounds, views and experiences on matters of great importance. And what could be more important than a nation’s constitution? And what could be a more significant part of a nation’s sovereignty than creating her own constitution? You in America gained your independence more than two hundred years ago. Thousands of Hungarians died for Hungary’s independence, but finally we won it only a little more than twenty years ago when the Soviet occupation ended. I was there, I was part of that generation, which achieved it, and now our task is to consolidate it! Hence, you should be aware of the high sensitivity of our nation towards questions of independence and non-interference. We Hungarians consider that our nation’s own constitution is an exercise in democracy that we should conduct. We listen to advice given in good faith, we learn from the experience of others. This is the very reason I am here now, but we insist on our right to decide. This is democracy and self-determination that we had been fighting for so long.

Szajer meghallgatasa, Helsinki Commission, 13-03-19

József Szájer on the left, Senator Benjamin Cardin on the right

My core message is that on your behalf there is no reason to worry about the commitment of Hungary to democracy and the rule of law. My main argument is that the new amendment does not carry any significant element which has not been tested before by the competent European institutions and modified if necessary.

In the 2010 elections, FIDESZ won a victory of rare magnitude, obtaining a constitutional majority, more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. The choice of the Hungarian people was a response to a deep economic, social and political crisis. The mismanagement of public finances, public deficit and debt slipping out of control and the frequent parading of paramilitary organizations were among its symptoms. We also witnessed serious violations of basic human rights by the authorities: the most serious ones concerning the freedom of assembly in the autumn of 2006. At those difficult times we were expecting the support of the democratic community of the world to speak out against state oppression of the citizens’ freedoms. Unfortunately, the international community turned a blind eye. Public order was seriously challenged by shocking events like the serial killings of our Roma compatriots with clear racist motivations and with the public authorities standing by crippled.

In 2010 we received the mandate and the corresponding responsibility to put an end to all that: start a comprehensive reform, including the adoption of a new constitution. In other words: correct the trajectory of our democracy.

A new constitution was long overdue. All Central and Eastern European countries had adopted their new, democratic constitutions long before, while Hungary had to live with an updated, explicitly transitory version of its 1949, Stalinist Constitution: in spite of several attempts, previous governments and parliaments lacked either the necessary majority or the political will to replace it altogether.

The Constitution of Hungary, as a member of the European Union and of the wider Euro-Atlantic community, respects and promotes the values of democracy and the rule of law. Large parts of the ensuing legislation have been subject to political debate and to legal review by the competent European institutions. For instance, it has been subject to controversy right from the start for its pro- life and pro-family stance. The new Fundamental Law was scrutinized by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which welcomed the “efforts made to establish a constitutional order in line with the common European democratic values and standards and to regulate fundamental rights and freedoms in compliance with the international instruments…” and noted that “the current parliamentary system and the country’s form of government … have been maintained.” While the European Commission launched four infringement procedures on some cardinal laws following the adoption of the Fundamental Law, it never challenged the Fundamental Law itself. (Under Article 4 of the Treaty on European Union the Union ‘shall respect’ the constitutional sovereignty of the member states.) The Hungarian Government was cooperating and complying throughout the process: it changed the Media Law and the Law on the Judiciary at the request of the Commission.

A few words on the new amendment. Around 95 percent of the provisions of the so-called Fourth Amendment, adopted last week, had been in effect ever since the entry into force of the new Constitution. We did not intend to change our Fundamental Law so soon after its adoption. What happened is that the Constitutional Court, in its recent decision, annulled some of the Transitory Provisions of the Fundamental Law on technical grounds. In fact, under the legislation, the Transitory Provisions, subject to a two-thirds majority and as such put on equal footing with the Fundamental Law, carried some constitutional provisions the Court now ruled should be moved to

The Fundamental Law itself. In other words, the position of the Court, based on the German constitutional doctrine of ‘obligation to incorporation’ is that the Constitution should be one single act: therefore, what had to be done was basically a copy-paste exercise of a purely technical nature. Hence the length of the new amendment! But not much new text. The Fourth Amendment was based on the request of the Court, and not against it, as some critics misleadingly claim.

Some words on the new elements.

All assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Fourth Amendment does not reduce the powers of the Constitutional Court. In fact, it does the opposite. It adds the President of the Supreme Court and the Chief Prosecutor, to those having the right to file for the constitutional review of laws. It repeals the rulings of the Court passed under the old Constitution, but clarifies at the same time that its rulings shall not lose their legal effect and – as specified by an additional amendment – the Court shall remain free to refer to its own previous case-law in its future jurisdiction. Nor can the Amendment strip the Court of a power it never had: the right to review and annul the Constitution text itself or its amendments, unless on the grounds of procedural flaws. My definition of the separation of the powers is that the Court interprets but does not change the text of the law. The power to change (or annul) the text of the Constitution should belong exclusively to the constitutional authority, which is the National Assembly in the case of Hungary. The Fourth Amendment makes a big step forward in making the procedures of the Constitutional Court transparent, by opening it to public access. It also adds – following several European examples – that the parties concerned in the proceedings should have the right to express their views in the procedure, changing the annoying and much criticized ‘black box’ nature of the Court.

Concerning the status of churches, I would like to reiterate that the criticized legislation has nothing to do with religious freedom or even with religion. According to Article VII (1) of the Fundamental Law, the confession and exercise of faith individually or collectively is a basic right of individuals and religious communities (without any need for registration). The only power the National Assembly has in this regard is to choose, on the basis of criteria codified by law, on which religious community to confer the additional right to subsidies from taxpayers’ money. This is common practice in Europe but our list of churches is more generous than the European average. I know that on the basis of your Constitution’s First Amendment, your system is different from the European model. Our Fourth Amendment adds an important correction: the parliamentary decision (by 2/3 majority) can be appealed at the Constitutional Court on procedural grounds. This change was adopted to implement the relevant Court decision.

On the front of the media, I have no breaking news. Here we can tell a real success story, at least if measured by the sheer number of reports, articles and other expressions that are harshly critical of the government published every single day in the free press of my country. If you read them, you will not witness any sign of the infamous self-censorship either! Anybody taking the trouble to check the situation on the ground rather than judging by hearsay would agree with that. I am not aware of any case of censorship or harassment of journalists during the three years of the current government. The actual purpose of the Media Law was to adapt to the Internet age and to streamline the financing of public media by our taxpayers. Many other countries are studying this law. There are huge debates in countries like the UK about appropriate press regulation. As mentioned earlier, the Media Law has been corrected on a couple of occasions at the request of the European Commission and the Constitutional Court.

Expressions of anti-Semitism and of racism in Hungary are cause for concern. Even though the phenomenon is not new and unfortunately widespread all over Europe, each and every such incident is deplorable and calls for more determination to eliminate them. The Hungarian Government is equal to the challenge. Prime Minister Orbán has repeatedly underlined that he stands for a policy of “zero tolerance” when it comes to anti-Semitism.

Here we are confronted with two conflicting expectations: to combat hate speech and safeguard the freedom of expression at one and the same time. One has to strike a balance. In the Fourth Amendment, we chose to lay the constitutional grounds for civil procedure open for any person in case his or her religious, ethnic or national community should be seriously offended in its dignity. This might not be the only solution to the problem; there has been criticism but we cannot stand aside idly. To illustrate the paradox, let me remind you of the kuruc.info case. Kuruc.info is a Hungarian language website, registered in the U.S,, infamous for propagating racial hatred and violence, targeting the Hungarian public. The Hungarian authorities have in vain requested its closure by the U.S authorities. The answer has always been that it was not possible under the more liberal U.S. laws.

Jewish communities in Hungary, which had been waiting for stronger legal instruments against hate speech for decades, welcomed the move. Rabbi Köves, leader of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation and the Action and Protection Foundation called the relevant article of the Draft 4th Amendment as an ‘historic step forward in defense of the dignity of the communities’.

Our policy is consistent with our unambiguous relationship with the past. It was the first Orbán Government which founded the Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest and included a special Holocaust Remembrance Day for the first time in the curriculum of high schools. Yet the latest shining evidence is the international Wallenberg memorial year in 2012, launched by the second Orbán cabinet to commemorate the centenary of the birth of the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Jewish lives in Budapest at the end of World War II and who was posthumously given the highest recognition by your legislature, the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Wallenberg year has earned universal acclaim. It gave us an opportunity to admit Hungarian co-responsibility in the Shoah, which Mr. János Áder, President of Hungary, solemnly did in his speech before the Israeli Knesset.

The time allotted for my testimony may not be long enough to dismiss all your concerns but I am confident that they will abate once the amendments are looked at more closely – as was the case with the Media Law, the Law on the Judiciary, and I can cite many other examples.. I am here to assure you that the Hungarian Government is at your disposal for further clarifications. We are open to criticism if based on facts and arguments. Foreign Minister Martonyi has requested the Venice Commission to give its opinion on the Fourth Amendment and would propose changes if necessary. We abide by the rules of the European institutions and expect the same from all others, including our critics. I am deeply convinced that in a constructive dialogue we can enrich each other’s constitutional experience, and thus avoid unfounded accusations and disagreements arising from misunderstandings.

The friendship between our two nations, Hungary and the U.S. belonging to the same alliance and being each other’s solid partners in promoting, shoulder to shoulder, our common values in places like Afghanistan and the Balkans will help.

Let me close my remarks with the first line of our national anthem, hence the first line of our new constitution: God bless Hungarians! Isten, áldd meg a magyart.

Testimony of Frank Koszorus, Jr., American Hungarian Federation, for the record

The Trajectory of Democracy

Hearing before United States Helsinki Commission

Statement of Frank Koszorus, Jr.

National President of the American Hungarian Federation and Public Member of the U.S. Delegation of the 1989 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe on the Human Dimension

The American Hungarian Federation (Federation), founded in 1906 as an umbrella organization, is an independent, non-partisan entity representing a broad cross-section of the Hungarian American community. From its founding, the Federation has supported liberal democracy, human and minority rights and the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).*  The Federation also supports good American/Hungarian and trans-Atlantic relations.

The Federation appreciates the Helsinki Commission’s efforts to promote democracy and strengthen democratic institutions in Hungary and throughout CEE. We also appreciate the opportunity to submit this statement for the record and hope that it will contribute to that goal.

The statement briefly addresses two issues: (1) the need to distinguish between genuine concern for the state of democracy in Hungary and the use of rhetorical democratic pretexts skirting democratic institutional norms that are being used to wage a political campaign to negate the voting public’s clear and overwhelming choice of the current government in the 2010 internationally recognized free and fair elections; and (2) the need to vigorously promote democracy by supporting the rights of religious and national minorities, including the rights of the Hungarian minorities living in countries bordering   Hungary.

JUDGING THE STATE OF DEMOCRACY IN HUNGARY

Rigorous analysis required. The Federation applauds efforts free of political bias that are intended to strengthen institutions, transparency in government, the rule of law, and separation of powers in Hungary.  It believes that the United States must remain engaged in CEE on a constructive and evenhanded basis to help strengthen democratic institutions and the stability that derives from democracy.

With the exception of NATO’s enlargement, attention soon drifted away from CEE after the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some quickly lost sight of the economic, moral and spiritual damage left in the wake of close to fifty years of Communism that had been imposed on the region by Soviet bayonets. Free elections were held and therefore nothing more needed to be done seemed to be the   attitude shared by some decision and opinion makers.

This analysis of CEE was superficial. Despite great strides toward freedom, democracy and democratic institution building throughout the region, there is work to be done, as, for example, is evident from rising anti-Semitism in parts of the region and intolerant attitudes and discriminatory policies directed at the Hungarian minorities in some of the countries neighboring Hungary – an issue that is largely ignored by some who are proponents of the questionable notion that democracy is in serious jeopardy in Hungary.

Putting the internal affairs of democracies established on the western parliamentary model, such as Hungary, under a microscope, however, is unusual and requires rigorous analysis. If the microscope is brought to bear to evaluate the actions of the government, the two questions that always must be asked are as follows: do those actions transgress in any substantial manner the established institutional norms practiced by a consensus of democracies around the world? And do they transgress the democratic norms established within the country being discussed itself?

In engaging in this review, one must distinguish between political questions that may arise about a government’s effectiveness or the wisdom of its policies and actions that may have breached in any substantial way institutional norms of democracy as practiced around the world in its various forms.**

Examining Hungary from this perspective, the legislative agenda of the current government, while perhaps politically controversial, does not rise to the grave level of putting “Democracy at Risk.” There has been robust, critical discussion in Hungary’s media about every aspect of the key laws in question that Parliament has passed, no state repression of the opposition’s right to publicly criticize and object, and no state efforts to deny the opposition its democratic right to peacefully win over the public to its side in the next elections. In addition, demonstrators have freely expressed their anti-government opinions, while foreign commentators have given interviews, and critical assessments have been published in the Hungarian media. On winning the election, the opposition can and undoubtedly will introduce its own legislative agenda, and if it has enough support in the electorate as Fidesz did, it can enact its own changes to the constitution as well. These are core elements of democracy well in play in Hungary today.

The Federation strongly supports and encourages a robust review of these matters, including a legitimate political debate surrounding the amendments to the constitution relating to the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court. Has its jurisdiction been unduly limited by the Court’s right to review only the procedures used to amend the constitution, not the substantive amendments themselves? How does that limitation compare to the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisdiction concerning modifications to the Constitution and amendments thereto? Does the ability of more officials to take cases to the Court to review laws even in the absence of actual and pending litigation advance the rule of law? Would it have been preferable to submit the amendments to the Venice Commission for review before they were passed by Parliament?

The Federation, however, is concerned with the insinuations that the process itself was somehow not democratic. One can agree or disagree with the outcomes, but to question the institutional integrity of the process ironically strips the credibility of the very democratic procedures at play that could be used to establish other outcomes by other elected governments as well.

Factual accuracy mandated. In addition to the need for rigorous analysis noted above, factual accuracy is necessary if the criticism is to be credible. For example, in an editorial calling on the EU to be firm with Hungary, the UK Independent erroneously stated that if the constitutional amendment were to pass, “coverage of elections campaigns will be restricted to state media only.” In fact, no such limitation exists; campaign commercials, not coverage, is limited.

Partisanship undermines fair review process. The Federation issues this statement not because it believes that no steps could be taken to strengthen democracy, democratic institutions and Hungary’s economy or that no mistakes have been made. It is not suggesting that every critical comment is solely meant to disparage Hungary. Rather it believes that some of the international criticism is not evenhanded or based on facts but on generalizations and speculation, i.e., what might happen as a result of the new laws as opposed to what has happened. Such criticisms often reveal a lack of understanding of Hungary’s history and the character of its people who have repeatedly sacrificed and demonstrated their commitment to freedom, as in 1956 when they rose up against Soviet tyranny. Suggestions in furtherance of the vaunted goal of strengthening democracy must be free of even a hint of political partisanship and must be grounded in principles and objective analysis.

 VIOLATION OF MINORITY RIGHTS SHOULD NOT BE IGNORED

Minority rights and democracy. Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, aptly noted, “one of the basic tenets of liberal democracy is that minority rights are protected.” And as the late champion of human rights, Congressman Tom Lantos, eloquently reminded us, this protection should extend to all religious, national and ethnic groups, including Hungarians.

The record is dismal on this score. The Federation is deeply concerned about the threat to democracy and human rights arising from discriminatory actions and policies directed at members of the Hungarian minority in some of the countries of CEE. It is deeply concerned about the continuing assaults on ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina, Serbia. It is deeply concerned that Slovakia has adopted discriminatory  language and citizenship laws; refuses to exonerate Janos Esterhazy, an unsung hero of the Holocaust who was the only member of Slovakia’s parliament to vote against the deportation of Jews in 1942; and refuses to repeal those provisions of the Benes Decrees that imposed collective guilt on the Hungarians after the Second World War. It is deeply concerned that Romania refuses to grant its Hungarian minority’s legitimate request for autonomy; restore the independent Hungarian university in Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár; provide restitution to all churches/religious organizations for property confiscated by the previous Communist regime; and proposes redistricting of administrative units that would further reduce the ability of Hungarians to effectively participate in public affairs, especially in matters affecting them and to enjoy their culture.

Minority rights enhance security. These human rights violations also impact security which is as much a function of the stability that is associated with democracy and minority rights as it is a function of military reforms and equipment in the context of multi-ethnic CEE.

This was recognized during the first round of NATO’s enlargement. The March 26, 1997

RFE/RL report titled, “Europe: U.S. Senator Outlines Criteria for NATO Expansion,” reported that then Senator Biden “said Senators will determine whether the prospective members maintain democratic institutions, respect civil and minority rights and keep their military forces under civilian control before they vote their consent.” In his article, “Slovakia and NATO: The Madrid Summit and After,” National Defense University Strategic Forum, April 1997, Jeffrey Simon wrote: “In sum, the major stumbling block to Slovakia’s candidacy to NATO arises from questions about the most fundamental criterion–the shared democratic values of respect for the rule of law and minority rights.” These countries should be held to the same standard now that they are members of NATO and encouraged to build tolerant societies by respecting the right of their Hungarian minorities.

Lack of respect for minority rights needs to be reviewed. Despite the less than exemplary record of countries neighboring Hungary when it comes to the treatment of their Hungarian minorities, Hungary has been inexplicably criticized for taking reasonable measures consistent with international norms and practices, e.g., citizenship, to assist the members of the minorities in their legitimate, justified and democratic efforts to preserve their distinctive culture. At the same time, some of the critics who aver that democracy is in danger in Hungary are silent when it comes to minority rights violations affecting Hungarians living in other countries in the region — violations that can be quantified.

Criticism is directed at the wrong party. But for the lack of respect for the minority rights of members of the Hungarian communities in states neighboring Hungary, the issue of Hungarian minorities would be moot. Intolerance and discrimination targeting any group (including Hungarians) based on ethnicity, nationality or religion is intolerable and should be condemned. Criticism, therefore, should be directed at those who violate minority rights, not at the victims of discrimination or those who speak up on their behalf. Respect for minority rights would not only be consistent with democracy – an important goal for the U.S. also — it would eliminate the need for Budapest to speak out against discriminatory practices in those countries.

CONCLUSION

While democratic institution building should be encouraged and debated, they should be done based on facts, and in a fair, unbiased and evenhanded manner. This review process, including criticism, must be bereft of partisanship (or even the appearance of partisanship) and undertaken solely in furtherance of promoting Western values, not political expediency. Finally minority rights must be respected and all forms of intolerance and discrimination, such as anti-Semitism and anti-Hungarian measures, must be condemned and not allowed to undermine democracy in CEE.

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*Several members of the Federation or their parents fought tyranny during and after World War II and escaped from Hungary to enjoy liberty. For example, the president’s father blocked the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944 and the executive director’s mother fought for freedom and was wounded during the 1956 Revolution.

** And what are the democratic norms that are alleged to have been violated and are the judgments applied evenhandedly? For instance, Great Britain’s democracy is not challenged because it has adopted the first-by-the post rule – a rule that can result in a majority of voters playing no part in determining the outcome of an election and single party majority governments.

Another example can be found in the conclusion of a study (Hungarian Media Laws in Europe: An Assessment of the Consistency of Hungary’s Media Law with European Practices and Norms) by the Center for Media Communication Studies, Central European University. The Center, which is critical of Hungary’s media law, acknowledges that there are “key deficiencies in a number of other European countries that may inhibit press freedom in ways that also do not conform to European free-press norms.” But those other countries are still deemed to be democratic and not subjected to the same intense scrutiny and hostility that Hungary has been since 2010.

Hungary’s recently enacted law on religions has been criticized for being restrictive. Maybe it is and further amendments may be in order, but last year’s State Department’s Annual Report to the Congress on International Religious Freedom notes similar restrictions in other European countries while not averring that democracy has been put at risk. The Report, for instance, notes that Austria only has 14 officially recognized religious societies.