Márta Pardavi is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. A lawyer by training, she leads the organization’s work in the field of refugee protection. She also serves on the board of the PILnet Hungary Foundation, a project funded by the International Visegrád Fund, which supports NGOs in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and the Verzió International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. Between 2003 and 2011 she was a member of the board, and later vice-chair, of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European alliance of 96 NGOs protecting and advancing the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons.
Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE)
Brussels, 7 December 2017
Dear Chair, Minister, members of the European Parliament,
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today, it is an honor.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee was founded in 1989 and has been working to defend human rights in Hungary. Our work focuses on protecting refugees and protecting human rights in detention and in criminal justice and the rule of law. This year, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee was shortlisted for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Vaclav Havel Prize and also was the recipient of the Gulbenkian Foundation’s prestigious Prize in Human Rights, in Portugal.
The common values in Article 2 of the Treaty are core values that are both the pillars and the drivers of our European community and European integration.
In Hungary, the government has systematically weakened checks and balances and the rule of law. The fundamental values of the EU have come under increasing threat and are being systematically disrespected.
Where independent institutions of governance have been dismantled or weakened, a free media and a vibrant and vocal civil society are essential to counterbalancing excessive power. Public participation in democratic processes and holding government accountable cannot be ensured without free and plural media and a free civil society.
Civil society has many roles, but one is particularly important here today. We speak truth to power. As a human rights organization, we protect individuals and society as a whole against the overreach of power and breaches of our common values as set out in Article 2 of the Treaty. When it says this discussion is nothing but a political attack and interference in domestic affairs, what the Hungarian government questions is exactly the shared nature of our common core European values. However, civil society’s role is to encourage also the European institutions, and others, to act in the interest of upholding our common values.
Space for expressing and accessing critical and pluralistic views in Hungary has been rapidly and alarmingly shrinking in the past year.
Beginning back in 2013, a series of measures began to target, discredit and intimidate civil society organizations that strive to hold the government to account on its obligations concerning anti-corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law. You will remember the series of unjustified investigations and even a police raid in 2014 against NGOs that had received funds from the EEA and Norway Grants NGO Program.
Other measures putting pressure on independent civil society include unfounded allegations by members of the Hungarian government or the ruling party as well as misleading or untrue reporting from government-controlled and government-aligned media. The national consultations and government communication campaigns held this year, you will recall, plastered Hungary in billboards calling to ‘Stop Brussels’ which attacked European institutions, or the currently finishing consultation that has been scaring the country with a sinister plot on migration.
These measures are meant to focus on and attack individuals and groups that express views about public affairs which are different from that of the government. This is no way to respect our common values in a European democracy.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst expressed concern in March 2017 about the continued stigmatization of human rights defenders and about the chilling effect of the inflammatory language used by senior government officials on the public perception of the value of civil society.
In its May resolution, the European Parliament called on the government of Hungary to withdraw the then proposed Act on the Transparency of Foreign-Funded Organizations. Nevertheless, on 13 June, the Hungarian Parliament proceeded to adopt the anti-NGO law.
Under the Anti-NGO Law, any civil society organization that receives over about EUR 23,000 per year from foreign sources should register as an “organization receiving foreign funds” in a state register. Foreign funding can come directly from the European Commission, UN bodies, private foundations or Hungarian citizens who are living abroad. The ‘foreign-funded’ label has to be displayed on all of its publications, print and digital alike. Failure to comply with the law could lead to a judicial procedure that could impose fines or even result in the court dissolving the organization.
The Venice Commission issued its final opinion a week after the law was adopted. It stressed that despite its legitimate aims, the law may not be used to stigmatize NGOs or restrict their ability to carry out their activities. The law causes disproportionate and unnecessary interference with freedom of expression and association, the right to privacy and non-discrimination.
In July 2017, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure on account of the law on foreign-funded NGOs. The Commission found several violations of EU law, namely that the Law interferes unduly with fundamental rights as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in particular, the right to freedom of association. The Commission concluded that the new law could prevent NGOs from raising funds and would restrict their ability to carry out their work. The new registration, reporting and publicity requirements are foreseen by the law are discriminatory and create an administrative and reputational burden for these organizations. These measures may have a dissuasive effect on the funding from abroad and make it difficult for the concerned NGOs to receive it.
To date, 233 Hungarian NGOs have publicly condemned the Anti-NGO Law as we believe it is unnecessary, stigmatizing and harmful. Unnecessary, because Hungarian civil society organizations are already transparent in their operations, provide accurate information about their donors and finances in annual reports and carry out their activities before the public. Stigmatizing, because the law implies that organizations which work for the benefit of Hungarian society by receiving international grants for their work pose a threat to the country. Harmful, because it undermines mutual trust in society and questions the right to freedom of expression.
There is a reason to fear that the newly adopted law will not be the endpoint of the several years’ long governmental campaign against independent civil society organizations. On the contrary, this is a new step in a long process that aims at fully discrediting and hindering independent civil society organizations.
This anti-NGO law is closely modelled after the Russian ‘foreign agent law’, which has made the work of independent pro-democracy and human rights NGOs extremely difficult. In many cases, good NGOs doings highly important work have had to close down.
Not only is the anti-NGO legislation itself strikingly similar in Russia and Hungary. The smear campaigns against prominent NGOs, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, are also very similar to what goes on in Russia.
Now, the government has begun to make references to national security risks. Already at the end of October, the Prime Minister and other government ministers spoke about having instructed the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies to look into how the so-called Soros-network has links to what it calls ‘Brussels’, European institutions such as the Parliament and the Commission.
As a Hungarian, it makes me upset that instead of fostering tolerance, the government of Hungary fuels intolerance — with taxpayer funds.
In addition to the constant Brussels-bashing in the billboards and full-page advertisements that I am sure you have seen pictures of as well, the hugely expensive taxpayer-funded national consultations are driving intolerance and xenophobia in Hungary to alarmingly high levels. Fearmongering against migrants and refugees, against Muslims, against foreigners who might look different than an average Hungarian, has created widespread hatred and fear in society. In small communities, locals have prevented a handful of recognized refugees from holidaying in their village. Elsewhere, foreigners staying in local bed and breakfasts must show their vaccination certificates under a local decree.
While radical, extremist and racist views like these are found in many parts of Europe, it is not governments themselves who fuel and disseminate them with taxpayer funds.
Politicians and governments can lead by example. However, the government of Hungary is setting a worrying and dangerous example when it comes to human rights and rule of law protection. My country has become a widely quoted example of an illiberal state in the heart of Europe, in the European Union. We are witnessing how this example is being followed elsewhere in the EU, most notably in Poland, but not only there.
Over the years and this year, the European Commission has launched infringement measures for a significant number of rules of law and human rights issues in Hungary. However, these infringement measures have not been able to address, let alone remedy the systemic breaches of rule of law and human rights in Hungary. In our European toolbox, we have further tools to address the broader concerns — of which I have highlighted a few here, but for lack of time, not all.
I haven’t spoken about refugee protection; independence of the judiciary, corruption, equality between men and women, minorities — the list of concerns goes on.
The tools to fix them need to be taken out before it’s too late.
Thank you for your attention.