Tag Archives: Márta Pardavi

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

Today’s extra: Interview with leaders of three Hungarian NGOs

Republishing this interview with three prominent civic leaders is timely since today the Hungarian parliament discussed a bill regulating civic groups that receive financing from abroad. I will report on the stormy session itself later. I am grateful to The Budapest Sentinel for permission to use their translation.

♦ ♦ ♦

Translation of interview with Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute (EKINT) director Bernadette Somody (pictured left), Hungarian Helsinki Committee co-chair Márta Pardavi (center), and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) managing director Stefánia Kapronczay (right) published in index.hu on April 12th, 2017 under the title “This is the logic of tyranny.” Photographed by István Huszti.

After Central European University (CEU) the government submitted a bill targeting far more defenseless civil organizations.  Civil organizations receiving more than HUF 7.2 million (USD 25,000-tran.) annually from sources abroad would have to register themselves as foreign organizations, and those who refuse would be threatened with closure.

CEU appears to be the most important cause, when in fact this is.

  • The interviewees do not want to try to understand the bill, because they do not consider it a basis for discussion.
  • They believe the draft law is not about transparency but about making their work impossible, intimidation, and stigmatizing them.
  • They say that the government is not interested in contrary opinions, but wants to smother debate by eliminating civil society.
  • If government decisions may not be questioned, then they are not legitimate.
  • They promise not to cooperate, and that they will not break.

The bill is about “the transparency of organizations supported from abroad.”  Each can decide for himself whether the three civil organizations operate in a transparent manner: EKINT’s economic data can be viewed here, Helsinki’s here, and TASZ’s here.

In response to criticism from politically active civil organizations, the government repeatedly accuses them of being funded from abroad, which is true.  Why can’t you find supporters at home?

Márta Pardavi: This is true of every human rights civil organization in the region of central Europe.  This is a given.  There are not state resources for such objectives, but if there were, nowadays it is doubtful whether accepting them would not compromise independence.

The other possibility is that the population and society support the legal defenders. But neither the ability of Hungarian society to do so, nor people’s knowledge of human rights and democracy can be compared to that of Holland.  Because those groups whose rights legal defenders try to defend are often poor, stigmatized, and live on the periphery, their ability to promote their interests are low, and the state organizational structure does not help them.

It is due to these external limitations that our work is largely supported by foreign donors.  Which does not cost the Hungarian budget anything, even as civil organizations provide a number of services which the state ought to.

The EU is one source, and there are large foundations, not just the Open Society Foundation, which think it important that human rights be better respected around the world.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never accepted state support, because we always protected Hungarian citizens from the Hungarian state, and one of the necessary conditions of this is that it never happen that the state dictate what citizens we protect. Because it is the state which commits the most legal violations, we cannot accept money from it.

We also have a high ratio of foreign support, and of course the question arises how much support a Budapest-based foundation founded by Hungarians receives in the form of foreign money.  It is also worthwhile adding that there are affluent persons, not only in Hungary but in many places in the world. who want to gave part of their wealth to good causes.  These foundations do not operate here for historical and economic reasons, but rather, for example, in England.

An activity involving somebody giving of their wealth not only to their children or their immediate surroundings but to social goals  should not be stigmatized but appreciated.

Bernadette Somody:  Why is it an accusation if money originates from abroad?  It is false to suggest that if the money is foreign, then the interest is also that.  It does not follow from the fact that foreign sources can be found for these that these are foreign interests, because these are international interests. It reflects badly on the Hungarian government if it regards certain universal values as strange or foreign.  It is not true that there is no value for Hungarian citizens in things for which funds cannot be found in Hungary.

Would it be better if organizations could fund a greater proportion from micro donations or domestic companies?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  A country or society’s level of development is shown by the existence of common goals, values, and the degree of willingness, strength, and money to stand up for social matters or minority groups. There are more and more volunteers in Hungary, and those who donate regularly. But there is a huge difference between somebody who volunteers at their children’s school and if a non-Roma regularly donates to the work of a foundation that stands up for Roma rights.  Also a precise measure is whether a company dares to undertake such matters.  The reason it is possible to maintain the foreign organizations’ interest narrative is because Hungarian society is still very polarized, and there are few values in which the majority, or everyone, believes.

Márta Pardavi: Of course, it would be better if more Hungarian citizens supported (civil society), and for years we’ve endeavored to better explain to them why our work is useful to society.  Unfortunately, the campaign against civil society today is so intensive that the civil activities and their results themselves have come to be questioned.  I think many are contemplating whether civil organizations are even needed, and whether they are turning to a bunch of people suspected working according to political orders if they ask help or extend help.  This is not the fault of civil society but a consequence of the anti-civil government campaign.

Bernadette Somody:  We are talking as though there are three different squares on the map: the state, that is, the government; society, so citizens; and the civil organizations. This is already the product of the government’s propaganda.  There are not three areas but rather two: on the one hand the state organs, the government, the practitioners of public power, and on the other, society.  Civil organizations are part of society.  They are not isolated but rather actors offering experience in the practice of basic rights, for example in order for citizens to express their opinion and undertake charitable social work.

The government justifies the modification to the law on the basis of creating transparency.  What’s the matter with this?

Bernadette Somody: It is not at all a question of whether we would want to operate transparently.  It is important that if we represent a given opinion, our financial background be known.  But this is already entirely the case today.  What we are speaking out against is the stigmatization, against the need to register separately, and the closure of those who do not satisfy this requirement.

Stefánia Kapronczay: In 2015 we even issued an opinion about this.  We try to take seriously the principle of transparency.  We wrote that the supporter can already be known, and whether a given source is international, and what activity is undertaken using the support. In fact, we set forth recommendations as to what operating information should be made available in place of the expected financial accounting.

Bernadette Somody:  Among consolidated relationships it is reasonable to raise the question as to what the motivations are of those who loudly participate in the democratic debate.  The stronger their position, and our position in the media is still perhaps louder than that of a citizen, the more it is necessary to disclose information about itself.  It is precisely for this reason that we still show our budgets going back years.

What principles argue against civil organizations being as transparent as possible?

Bernadette Somody:  The fact that we do not make decisions that are binding on citizens.  We have our opinions, just like any other citizen, but their expression is not associated with any compulsory or public power, and we do not spend public money.  In contrast to the state, there is no reason in the case of civil organizations why the main rule needs to be transparency.  We must not compromise our right to demand, just like any citizen, that there be a constitutional reason to compel us to make information public.  I think people would be outraged to be told by a company to publish their salary on the internet.  Why would they do this?  Under no circumstances do we wish to find meaning in a meaningless concept.  We do not want to act as though we believe that this is a real argument.  The bill is about obstructionism, intimidation, and stigmatization, and nothing else.

How much are civil organizations of this kind required to accommodate the expectations of foreign supporters?

Márta Pardavi: Donors always have expectations: this is called strategy or application and reporting obligations.  The task of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is to protect refugees.  One method of this is to provide legal assistance that enables vulnerable people to navigate the legal maze.  We agree with this, and in this sense it is not about alignment but about a community of values.   Applications involve a huge amount of paperwork and tremendous inspection.  It is mostly the same when it comes to the administration of EU supports and the Open Society Foundation.  But beyond the obligations set forth in the application and the contract, it is not necessary to meet any other expectations.  They do not even say at the UNHCR whether we can appeal in a specific case or what kind of statement we should issue.

Bernadette Somody:  The basis for the relationship with the donor is the community of values in the goals, as well as oversight ensuring that the money is spent properly which must be strictly documented.  But it is not like a road construction tender, where the government says a 50 km-long road is to be built between cities A and B with such and such a foundation and from such and such materials, and the one submitting the cheapest offer (or somebody else) wins the tender.  Our clients do not instruct us in such a manner.  We agree that people should be able to travel more easily and more safely, this is supported by a donor, and we submit a proposal as to what we believe would be a good mode of transportation.  They require of us that we perform what we undertook.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  The organizations have public, easily accessible strategies.  For 22 years TASZ has held decision-makers to account according to the same principles.  To say that we change to suit the expectations of the donors is a lie.  There is never any concrete substantive expectation as to what we are to execute.  Naturally, it matters what applications can be submitted in a given season. But we do not change our values because of this, and we retain the activity for which there is no funding and try to find money for it.  For this reason it is very important that those citizens who agree with our activities support us with a monthly donation, even if it is only a symbolic amount.  If only so that we can stand on several legs, since this is also one of the bases for dependency.

How stable are they financially?

Márta Pardavi:  In an ideal case a civil organization, like every  business organization, should have a stable, reliable income from which it can finance its basic operation, and if it wants to especially focus on something for a few years, say that the same authority that is investigating should not choose legal defenders, then we can obtain separate money for that.  It should not be necessary to worry whether it will be possible at the end of the year to pay the financial advisor or whether the office will have electricity.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to obtain donations for that, and civil organizations must often rely on the current opportunities at hand.  But certainly we are not willing to do certain things.  We do not apply for funds allocated for achieving objectives that are not among our priorities or which do not pertain to our activities.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  If such an organization can see twelve months ahead that its operating costs are covered, then it is very happy.  We could sleep well if we saw three years in advance but the reality is at most one year.

Bernadette Somody:  EKINT is clearly under-financed.  It would be good if we could see one year in advance.  We operate with an extremely small budget but with salaries that are acceptable to committee people,  But it is entirely certain that there are interdependencies with the circles of activities of the Eötvös Károly Institute which are slightly more difficult to illuminate than defending the rights of people.

Yes, it is possible to know more about TASZ and Helsinki, but what does EKINT deal with?

Bernadette Somody:  Originally the institution came about to transform the theoretical foundations of knowledge for use by the government.  Today there is no need whatsoever for this on the part of the government.  But meanwhile it is necessary to confront the fact that the frameworks and the foundations have been called into question.  EKINT did not want to pursue a mission other than the one for which it was created 15 years ago, but changes to our environment made this necessary and forced us to stand up for the boundaries of constitutional democracy.  The government liquidated the institutional system protecting human and basic rights.  This can only be occasionally accomplished in a decorative manner.  For this reason EKINT supervises the institutions and mechanisms overseeing the exercise of public power, and we call attention to when they are compromised, and we try to maintain the need for them so that we do not get used to this like the frog does to hot water in a pot of boiling water.

It is not clear to many people that it is not volunteers but paid employees working at serious civil organizations.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is only necessary to pay our colleagues because the people working here could work at law offices or other companies.  It is not possible to fulfill our obligations with volunteers; only with paid, professional experts.  Just our legal assistance service handles more than 2000 requests annually and involves 120 unique legal cases.  They often ask what my regular job is apart from what I do at TASZ.  At these times I am astonished they believe it is possible to perform work besides this.

Bernadette Somody:  The civil organizations have to pay their colleagues not only because they could work elsewhere but also to prevent them from being compromised.  I can maintain that EKINT employees always promote our values and interests if I can ensure their existential security.  If somebody is forced to live from other sources, then their existential interests may compete with the interests of their civil workplace.

How is it possible to explain to those who do not understand why it is necessary to have civil organizations at all?

Bernadette Somody: The state renders decisions that are binding on us, its citizens.  That we submit ourselves to these even if we do not agree carries a minimal moral condition: that we dispute these decisions.  The draft modification to the law about CEU was adopted a week after it was tabled.  There was no opportunity for debate.

As with the press, civil organizations are capable of amplifying an alternative, often minority point of view, and to keep these on the agenda in order for there to be an opportunity to strengthen points of view contrary to those of the government, and ad absurdum for  governments to be replaceable.  This is the democratic minimum and a condition for a normally working constitutional democracy.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is the task of the government to listen to these opinions and factor them into the decision-making process.  But this does not mean the exercise of pressure that cannot be resisted.  The government, especially one enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary majority or a significant majority, is elected to make decisions representative of the community of citizens having heard these opinions.

In order to make good decisions, it needs to know the point of view of citizens, which civil organizations often reinforce.  For example, when we represent handicapped persons whose voices are weak.

The government believes civil organizations lack democratic legitimacy to be able to have a say in communal matters.  Do they?

Bernadette Somody:  The need for democratic legitimacy, that is, that a plurality or majority authorize a political actor, can be expressed if the actor exercises public power, in other words what the state does: pass laws and impose its will.  Oner of the tricks of state hate propaganda is that it tries to differentiate civil organizations from citizens, where the civil organizations are themselves made up of citizens.

Instead, they are made to appear as though they resemble the state, and exercise power over citizens.  This is a completely false, fake, and malicious thing to imply.   Democratic legitimacy requires from the government that it win its power in elections that are really free and fair, which is doubtful in Hungary, but that is the subject for a different discussion.  But I would turn it around: it should be the condition of the state’s activity that it allow civil organizations to freely operate.  If the activity of the government cannot be challenged, then it is not legitimate.

Márta Pardavi: The visceral response is that a debate on democratic legitimacy essentially means that nobody should interfere in politics who is not a member of parliament.  However, this outrages a lot of people regardless of what they think about politics or the content of political messages.  Whoever has turned out for a protest, or swore when he felt that things were being decided over his head in parliament, understands how much of a false, deceitful claim this is.

Bernadette Somody: The government makes it seem that only the government’s opinion is legitimate because only it possesses democratic legitimacy.  The government speaks for the nation, and anyone who criticizes it is serving various foreign interests.  This is not democracy, this is the logic of tyranny.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  It is truly aggravating when citizens living in Hungary are deprived of their right to have a say in debates over public issues, where the government refers to the authorization it obtained from them.  The whole thing is a strange and inverted logic.

Of the three organizations, EKINT does not fall under the jurisdiction of the draft law (EKINT operates as a nonprofit foundation, whereas the bill refers to associations and foundations).  Is this really a drafting error, or the result of something?

Bernadette Somody:  I don’t want to call its legality into question, but we would very much like to abstain from seeking for meaning or mistakes in hateful propaganda.  This is a stigmatizing, hateful, step threatening the existence of civil organizations, unsuitable for our looking for realizable constitutional content or principles.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We completely agree.  This law needs to be understood as a campaign to discredit civil organizations, and there is no point in getting into a constitutional or legal debate, because with that we created the notion that there is room for debate.  The draft law has nothing to do with transparency.

Márta Pardavi:  There was no discussion whatsoever concerning the need for the law or its details, and this also shows that they want to deprive us of the ability to serve Hungarian citizens.   They very deliberately denied us the opportunity to state our opinion of the bill, even though this is prescribed by law.  After the five-party discussion, based on the statement of Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz chair of the parliamentary committee on legislative affairs), it was apparent that, following the Putin scheme, the government is no longer in the mood to listen to contrarian points of view.   Unfortunately, the government did not engage in debate with our principles in the refugee matter, which should be a civilized discussion, but decided that it had had enough of contrarian points of view, and would prefer to try and silence civil organizations by stigmatizing them as anti-Hungarian traitors.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  We never have a problem debating with János Lázár or Fidesz.  When we state our opinion we are not speaking about a party or a politician but rather about what they are doing.  We consider debate to be very important and we would very much like to participate in it, and it is precisely one of the largest criticisms that there is no dialogue and no forums for discussion.  Now they have raised this to the next level.  Not only are they refusing to talk to us but they won’t listen to the points of views of the citizens who are behind our various affairs.

How does the law obstruct the organizations? Why is it a problem if you have to write everywhere that TASZ, for example, is financed from abroad?

Stefánia Kapronczay:  This is part of a long campaign.  Already since 2013 we hear that foreign funding is somehow connected with not serving the national interest.   Such voices appeared in this campaign that called for the organizations to be swept away.  One needs to see that where such a law is adopted, they never stop at the first step.

In Russia they resisted organizations by requiring them to register themselves as foreign agents, and forced them to do so, and when they continued to resist, they closed them down.  This draft law makes possible their closure via a simplified procedure.

Márta Pardavi:  The law does not guarantee the transparency to which it refers, since in our case this is continuously fulfilled, in contrast, say to CÖF-CÖKA (pro-government civil organizations funded by the state- tran.), whose public reports say absolutely nothing.  So it is completely clear that the government is targeting those who criticize it.  The first step was the 2014 affair involving the Norwegian Civil Fund, but legal steps taken against the civil organizations were entirely fruitless.  To the contrary, we became more renowned. Now we have arrived to the second part, and we have to calculate with there being a continuation, if public outrage fails to stop it.

It is still hair-raising that only a few days after the European Council’s commissioner for human rights issued a statement about the narrowing civil field in those places where civil society is subject to greater pressure, Hungary was listed among such countries that are hardly examples to be followed:  Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Azerbaijan.  Often the government claims that Hungary’s draft law parallels that of Israel or the United States, as though they were the same, but they are not.  But when we protest against following the Russian example, it shows just how extremely awkward it is to bear Putin’s stigma.

How will the organizations continue to operate if the law comes into force with the current content?

Márta Pardavi:  We still don’t know but we are contemplating this.  After the Moscow Helsinki group signed the Helsinki closing document in 1978 in the midsts of the most serious dictatorship.  Very brave citizens brought this about, who exposed serious human rights violations to the public, and who kept contact with foreign civil organizations.  Amidst the most serious conditions, there were always those who raise their voices against violations.  In a European Union democracy this can be done amidst a more pleasant environment, but there are times when greater risk taking and bravery is required.   It is not possible to say where we are in the current form.  Greater bravery will be required to stand up but I think our colleagues possess it.  We know each other well and we are starting out in good shape.

Stefánia Kapronczay:  For us the most important thing is that we can help Hungarian citizens to avail themselves of their rights.  As to what the administrative framework will be, we still do not know, but it’s for sure that TASZ will remain and complete its work, our clients can count on that, whether we are talking about mothers suffering from hospital infections, reporters, or special-needs children.

Bernadette Somody:  We don’t know either.  But I would like to sensitize what the law means with an example.  Assume that, just as civil organizations have published their financial information for years, everyone who disclosed personal information  about themselves at some point in time will be required to wear what they said on their clothes.  We would feel that this fundamentally violates human dignity.  The same thing is happening now with civil organizations.

April 19, 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

The Hungarian government’s flouting of European law and human rights

Two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a decision that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

Hungarian civil rights activists were encouraged by the Court’s decision, especially since the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, passed not long ago by the parliament, envisaged these container transit zones as the sole means of handling asylum applicants. In fact, it was today that the amended law came into effect.

After ECHR’s ruling, the leaders of the government parties began suggesting in all seriousness that Hungary should simply suspend its adherence to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, originally adopted in 1950. This is not a joke, just as it is not a joke that Hungary is pursuing the issue of the red star on bottles of Heineken beer. Both are hopeless efforts by a government that is acting even more strangely of late than it normally does.

A week ago Monday, Imre Vejkey (KDNP) began the attack on the Convention: “Now is the time to think about terminating Hungary’s adherence to the Convention or at least suspending some of its provisions.” On Thursday János Lázár said at his press conference that the government considers the verdict “unacceptable and impossible to implement.” Although the decision was unanimous and the Court is unlikely to reverse itself, the Hungarian government insists on appealing the judgment. By Friday Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, announced on ATV that “the ministry of justice will have to examine what kinds of obligations” Hungary has under the terms of the Convention. On Sunday Lajos Kósa, the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, said that if Strasbourg continues criticizing Hungary’s migrant policies “we must relinquish” our adherence to the treaty. He even accused the Hungarian Helsinki Commission of “profiting from the migrant crisis at the expense of the Hungarian government.” He was alluding to the fact that the Court, in addition to the 5.8 million forints awarded to each of the refugees, granted 2.7 million forints to the Hungarian Helsinki Commission for their work on the case.

Együtt, one of the smaller opposition parties, compiled a list of what Hungarians would be deprived of if Hungary turned its back on the Convention and consequently on the Council of Europe. The list is long: right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture and degrading treatment; right to remedy by a competent tribunal; freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile; right to a fair public hearing; right to be considered innocent until proven guilty; right of free movement in and out of the country; right to asylum; right to own property; right to education. And we could continue. But Lajos Kósa sees no problem whatsoever with the suspension of the Convention because “in Hungary it is not the legal force of ECHR that guarantees human rights but the Hungarian Constitution and other international treaties.”

This is all just talk. The consequences of such a move would be so severe that no country, especially a member of the European Union, could seriously entertain it. The very first consequence of such folly would be a loss of membership in the Council of Europe. That in turn would result in serious conflict with, or even expulsion from, the European Union. So, Kósa can demand all he wants that the government in the name of Fidesz suspend adherence to the Convention. Nothing of the sort will happen. After all, in Europe there are only three countries that are not signatories: the Vatican, Kosovo, and Belarus.

As for the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the organization, doesn’t seem to be at all frightened by the threats made by the government against the institution as a beneficiary of the migrant business. She reminded Kósa of the kind of business the Hungarian government is conducting via the settlement bonds, sold to thousands of people for 300,000 euros each. So, Kósa should not accuse others of financial gain from the miseries of refugees. (Of course, there are refugees and “refugees,” with staggeringly different levels of misery.) As for the 2.7 million forints for legal fees, she finds the amount perfectly reasonable. Unless she hears something similar from the government itself, she considers Kósa’s semi-incoherent words on the subject mere “political rant.”

The government is remaining quiet for the time being. But its actions show that it was’t impressed with the Court’s verdict or with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s repeated assertion that the government’s latest law on asylum is illegal not just according to the Court in Strasbourg but also according to the Hungarian Constitution. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission again had to turn to ECHR on Friday in order to put an immediate stop to moving a pregnant woman from Uganda and eight refugee children who had been housed in Fót to the transit zone near the Serbian border. The woman had been a victim of torture and is currently suffering from psychological trauma. As far as I know, the government refrained from the forcible removal of these people, at least for the time being.

It looks like a lecture to me / Source: Népszava / Photo József Vajda

Meanwhile Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, arrived in Budapest to conduct negotiations with Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, and László Trócsányi, minister of justice. Avramopoulos’s job was to drive home to Budapest that all member states must comply with the Union’s rules and that human rights is one of the basic principles that must be adhered to. At the end of the negotiations it was announced that a working group will be formed to examine whether the Hungarian law infringes on the laws of the European Union. According to legal scholars, it unquestionably does. It would be time for the European Union to put an end to the Hungarian government’s games because nothing good can come of them as far as the future of the Union is concerned.

March 28, 2017