Tag Archives: Helsinki Committee

Márta Pardavi’s testimony at the EP hearing on the Situation in Hungary

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)
European Parliament
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.

December 10, 2017

On George Soros and from George Soros

George Soros took up the gauntlet on November 20 when he published a rebuttal to the national consultation on the so-called Soros Plan, an act which, I believe, was long overdue. Soros’s character assassination in Hungary shouldn’t have remained unanswered for that long. Yet some talking heads questioned the wisdom of getting engaged in any kind of debate with Viktor Orbán’s propaganda machine. They argued that Soros’s rebuttal and his video appearances only extend the government’s campaign against him. I think they are profoundly wrong. Knowing the Orbán regime’s modus operandi, the Soros-bashing will go on as long as the powers-that-be find it useful. And since the whole election campaign has been built on the migrant danger brought about practically single-handedly by George Soros, the anti-Soros campaign will last at least until the election. Perhaps even longer, because migration into Europe will not stop any time soon.

In any case, I’m no fan of cowardly behavior, and I must say that practically all of the opposition parties fall into the cowardly category when it comes to defending George Soros. True, they criticize the government’s policies, but I haven’t yet seen a really brave defense of the man. There is always a qualifying phrase about Soros’s business activities. I assume that in the back of their minds is the notion that one can become rich only by dishonest means.

Instead of a joint condemnation by all Hungarian opposition parties distributed to all major newspapers of the world, only four brave lecturers at a small Methodist college, training future ministers, stepped forward. In fact, they recommended that George Soros receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Here is their letter.

To the Nobel Peace Prize Committee
Oslo, Parliament

 Dear Mr. President,

We propose George Soros as the next Nobel Peace Prize winner. It is well-known that by his relentless and systematic support offered to the Hungarian, Czech and Polish opposition in the 1980’s, Soros had had a major contribution to the creation of democracy and to the break-up of the Warsaw Pact. Founded and chaired by him the Open Society Institute supports the cause of democratic transition everywhere in the world. Founded and supported by Soros, the Central European University has trained at high international standards thousands of students committed to democracy. By their openly anti-Soros propaganda campaigns governments in Belorussia, Hungary after 2014 etc., infamous for their anti-democratic activities, also reinforce the conviction of such forces about the symbolic significance of his person. In the issue of Foreign Policy published on July 19, 2016 he elaborated his position regarding the European migration crisis, which has been the most complex conception of the topic to date.

Iványi Gábor, priest
Lukács Péter, researcher of education
Majsai Tamás, theologian
Nagy Péter Tibor, sociologist
Szilágyi Gál Mihály, philosopher

That Soros would actually receive the Peace Prize is a very long shot, but the letter is an important gesture and a brave move. Admittedly, Gábor Iványi and his church have nothing left to lose thanks to Viktor Orbán who, according to Iványi, is destined for eternal damnation.

In addition to the rebuttal, the Open Society Foundation (OSF) just announced the expansion of its activities in Hungary. OSF will spend large sums of money in two of the poorest regions in Hungary: Southern Transdanubia and the northern regions of the Great Plains, with headquarters in Pécs and Debrecen. The plan is to distribute grants to civic groups that will work on community building and helping the downtrodden. The idea is to bring the foundation “closer to the people.” In plain language, they are planning to counteract the antagonistic propaganda campaign against George Soros and the foundation.

The first government reaction to these plans came from Péter Hoppál, one of the two Fidesz members of parliament from Pécs. He reported that the local Fidesz organization is working on a statement in which it will reject “in the name of the inhabitants of the city” the establishment of a “Soros campaign center” in Pécs. The local Fidesz leaders asked the inhabitants not to rent space for the foundation’s headquarters. I have the feeling that the local Fidesz bigwigs are barking up the wrong tree because Fidesz has already lost all its appeal in the city, which the Fidesz leadership managed to bankrupt over the last eight years. Moreover, the Fidesz majority in these districts was very small in the first place. They were two of the twelve districts that would have gone to the opposition if LMP had joined forces with the other opposition parties.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is one of those partially Soros-funded organizations that have guts. Statement #5 of the national consultation of the Soros Plan reads that “another goal of George Soros is to make sure that migrants receive milder sentences for crimes they commit,” and in the Infobox the government claimed that the Helsinki Committee was one of those organizations that argued that “the use of serious sanctions in the case of illegal border crossing is troubling.” The Helsinki Committee sued, accusing the government of libel by claiming that they defend people who commit illegal acts. The appellate court of Budapest ruled in the Helsinki Committee’s favor. The government can no longer distribute any material that contains this statement.

As for the anti-Soros campaign, here is a good example of Fidesz’s lost moral compass. One of the Fidesz MPs republished on Facebook a photo he received from Transylvania. The good Szeklers were having great fun at a pig killing festivity with a dead pig lying on the ground. The message on its back reads “Ő VOLT A SOROS!!!” The sentence could be translated either as “It was his turn” or as “This was Soros.” The great Fidesz mind added: “One fewer pig over there. Bon appetit!” He was, however, greatly offended when a journalist from 444.hu confronted him with this tasteless photo. It had nothing to do with George Soros, he claimed. The Open Society Foundation said that the post was a “shocking attack” and that the photo fits into “a long and dark tradition of anti-Semitic imagery dating back to the Middle Ages.” No comment is necessary. Only total disgust.

Finally, let me reprint here George Soros’s latest article, which appeared today in Project Syndicate under the title: “The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies.”

♦ ♦ ♦

The Hungarian government has released the results of its “national consultation” on what it calls the “Soros Plan” to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

In October, Hungary’s government mailed questionnaires to all four million of the country’s households asking for peoples’ views on seven statements describing my alleged plan to flood Europe, and Hungary in particular, with Muslim migrants and refugees. The government made seven assertions about what it calls the “Soros Plan.” I rebutted each and every one based on my published statements or the lack of any published statements that could substantiate them.

Now, the government has released the supposed results of its “national consultation” on my phantom plan, claiming that the exercise was an unprecedented success. I leave it to the Hungarian public to decide whether and to what extent the figure of 2,301,463 participants (out of a population of 9.8 million) was inflated. It should be possible to inspect the list of those who took part and check if they did indeed participate. Instead, I want to focus on the campaign’s substance.

The national consultation and the release of the results are the latest elements of a massive ongoing propaganda campaign funded by Hungarian taxpayers to benefit a deeply corrupt government seeking to deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ legitimate aspirations, particularly in education and health care. The campaign started in the summer by flooding public spaces with posters featuring a close-up of my grinning visage with the words “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.”

Other posters portrayed me as the puppet-master of opposition politicians. As many have pointed out, the entire campaign carries the unmistakable odor of anti-Semitism.

The government would have you believe that I am an enemy of the Hungarian people. Nothing could be further from the truth. I first opened my philanthropic foundation in Hungary in 1984, when the country was still under the domination of the Soviet Union. Since then, it has provided more than $400 million to strengthen and support the country of my birth.

In the 1990s, as ordinary Hungarians struggled with the transition from communism to a market economy, the foundation funded free milk for elementary school children in Budapest and supplied the first sonogram machines for Hungarian hospitals. More than 3,200 Hungarians have received academic scholarships from the foundation. Many of them have completed their graduate studies at the Central European University (CEU), which I established in Budapest in the early 1990s. CEU now ranks among the top 100 universities in the world in the social sciences – a remarkable achievement for an academic newcomer.

Another element of the propaganda campaign has been to twist the meaning of “open society.” So allow me to clarify what I mean when I use the term. I do not mean open borders and mass migration aimed at destroying the supposedly Christian identity of Hungary, as the government contends.

The open society is based on the idea that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth, and that to live together in peace we must respect minorities and minority opinions. Above all, it is a society based on critical thinking and vigorous public debate about public policies. That is why today my foundation – among many others including the European Union – supports groups such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which protect and promote the values and principles on which the EU was founded.

The government also claims that I control the European institutions in Brussels, and that I am using that control to impose the nefarious “Soros Plan” on EU member states. This is nonsense. Decisions about how to address the migration crisis are made by the EU’s member states, including the Hungarian government. It insults the intelligence of the Hungarian people to suggest otherwise.

I do have deeply held beliefs about how Europe and the rest of the developed world should respond to the refugee crisis, and I have been a vocal advocate of those views. My beliefs are born out of personal experience. I arrived in Britain from Hungary in 1947 as a refugee. I have never encouraged others to become refugees. My parents, together with 200,000 Hungarians, left the country after the defeat of the 1956 revolution, and they received asylum in the United States.

I first published my ideas on the refugee crisis in September 2015, and I have revised them over time, as the facts on the ground have changed. In 2015, I asserted that the developed world should be able to accept at least a million refugees annually; later I reduced that global figure to 500,000, of which I suggested Europe could take 300,000.

My guiding principle is that the allocation of refugees within the EU should be entirely voluntary. Member states should not be forced to accept refugees whom they don’t want, and refugees should not be forced to settle in countries where they are not wanted.

Member states that refuse to accept refugees can make an appropriate contribution in many other ways, but the refugee crisis is a European problem, so it needs a European solution, not 28 separate solutions. It is this set of policy recommendations that the Hungarian government has deliberately distorted and labeled the “Soros Plan.”

Unfortunately, the EU has not adopted my ideas, and the toxic political atmosphere created by Hungary (and Poland) has reduced Europe’s capacity to receive and integrate refugees. I do not blame the Hungarian and Polish governments for refusing to accept refugees they do not want; but I do hold them largely responsible for impeding a European solution.

I remember what happened during World War II, when another group was scapegoated for Europe’s problems. The wounds of the past have left deep scars that have not yet healed, and which today are being reopened. The true purpose of the government’s propaganda campaign is to stoke fear and hatred in the Hungarian people and render them indifferent to the suffering of others.

I am pleased to report that the government’s propaganda campaign has been a dismal failure. Despite the Hungarian government’s concerted efforts, the public was not taken in. My short speech on Hungarian television attracted more than a million viewers, and social media platforms were flooded with outpourings of sympathy and support.

I am greatly heartened by this response. I pledge to devote the remaining years of my life to supporting free thought and expression, academic freedom, and the protection of minorities and minority opinions – not only in my native Hungary, but all over the world.

December 8, 2017

Beware, the refugees are coming!

A couple of days ago a brief article appeared in Magyar Nemzet, which surely surprised those who happened upon it. The Hungarian government has surreptitiously accepted a fair number of refugees for settlement in Hungary this year. While the drumbeat against the Soros Plan and migrants is continuous and unrelenting, behind the backs of the misled people the government has accepted far more “migrants” so far this year than in 2016. While in 2016 the Hungarian government received over 25,000 applicants, this year their number shrank to fewer than 3,000. Yet, according to the Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs (BMH), the number of people receiving asylum has more than doubled.

Here are a couple of terms we must be familiar with before we can make sense of the statistics. My source is an extremely useful pamphlet the Hungarian Helsinki Committee published in English, called “Asylum in Hungary.” I assume this is one of those publications the Hungarian government accuses the Helsinki Committee of putting out to encourage immigration and promote the Soros Plan. In fact, it is a guide to help arrivals find their way through the complicated Hungarian bureaucracy. There are three different forms of protection a refugee can get in Hungary. (1) Refugee status (menekült) is for people with a “well-founded fear” of torture, inhuman treatment, slavery, physical or sexual violence, or very serious discrimination. (2) Subsidiary protection status (oltalmazott) is for people who are at a real risk of suffering any of the following: the death penalty, torture, degrading treatment, or serious threat to a civilian’s life. (3) Tolerated status (befogadott) is a protection status based on a more general (not individualized) risk of harm in the country of origin.

According to the statistics, the Hungarian authorities’ favorite refugee status seems to be the “tolerated” one. In 2016 271 people were allowed to stay in Hungary under this rubric. This year their numbers will most likely be close to 1,000 because so far 866 such permissions have been granted. The number of those who have received subsidiary protection is also up. In 2016 only 7 people were granted such status while this year the number was 73. On the other hand, the Hungarian authorities are extremely reluctant to grant bona fide refugee status. In fact, this year fewer such permissions were granted (89) than in 2016 (154). What is the reason for this reluctance? According to the Helsinki Committee, the real difference is that those with subsidiary protection status are not allowed to have their spouses, children, or parents join them at a later date.

Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: László Beliczay

The refugee camps in Hungary are now practically empty. Last year there were more than 1,000 refugees in camps, while right now there are no more than 400. The reason for the small number of migrants waiting for a decision on their applications is that “the majority of the asylum seekers without waiting for the decision leave the country.” It is therefore difficult to understand why the ministry of interior still steadfastly recruits “border hunters.”

The only party that seemed to perk up after reading the Magyar Nemzet article was Jobbik. Péter Jakab, the party’s spokesman, released a communiqué in which he complained about the duplicity of Fidesz which, on the one hand, frightens people with the migrants and, on the other, allows them into the country. It is bad enough that Viktor Orbán through “settlement bonds” has allowed 20,000 people so far into the country, but “even 1,000 poor people” have been permitted to come to Hungary just this year. Jobbik, as far as the issue of immigration is concerned, holds even more draconian views than Fidesz. From this and other statements it is clear that if it depended on Jobbik, not one Middle Easterner or African would ever set foot in Hungary.

There is another piece of news that is connected to the Hungarian government’s quiet acceptance of a fair number of refugees, obviously in the hope of appeasing “the bureaucrats in Brussels.” This is an interview with Lívia Járóka, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament who was just elected one of the vice-presidents of the body. Járóka is part Roma on her father’s side. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University College of London. She became a member of the European Parliament in 2004, but it seems that she was dropped from the Fidesz list in 2014. However, she was just chosen to replace Mrs. Pelcz, Ildikó Gáll and also inherited her position as vice-president.

Járóka gave a fairly lengthy interview to Magyar Idők on the occasion of her election to the vice-presidency, an interview that is full of statements that would be unexpected from a Fidesz member of the European Parliament. First of all, she refused to engage in any anti-migrant talk. The reporter from Magyar Idők tried to elicit from Járóka a condemnation of the European Union’s refugee policy, but she avoided going down that path. Instead, she emphasized the necessity of their integration. “We would like it if they [the refugees] would understand that we find it important that, after a rapid and effective integration, armed with European knowledge, they would be able to return to their own homelands.” Well, well. This is a message we haven’t heard before. Integration? Until now we have heard from the highest levels of the Hungarian government that integration between Muslims and non-Muslims is impossible. Their cultures are so different that one ought not even attempt it. Moreover, the argument continues, these people don’t want to integrate. They want to live the same lives they led in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.

What’s going on? Of course, the first thought that comes to mind is that Viktor Orbán is up to his old tricks. Playing the migrant card in Hungary but behind the scenes in the European Union showing his reasonable side. He could, for example, go to Antonio Tajani, EPP president of the European Parliament, and tell him that, although only 3,000 or so asylum seekers came to Hungary, the country has already allowed almost 1,000 to settle and the new Fidesz EPP vice-president talks about “rapid and effective integration.” Surely, he will say, there must be some misunderstanding on that score. I can well imagine such an exchange during his recent visit with Tajani. Of course, it is also possible that Járóka, judging from her ethnic background as well as her professional interests, has a more sophisticated understanding of the issue and finds it difficult to accept the kind of reasoning the absolutely loyal “parrot commando” bombards the Hungarian public with.

November 20, 2017