United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst spent nine days (between February 8 and 16, 2016) reviewing “the situation of human rights defenders to gather first-hand information on challenges faced by civil society in Hungary and explore ways to widen the democratic space.” Forst, who hails from France, has extensive experience on human rights issues, especially on the situation of human rights defenders. Special rapporteurs are not UN staff members and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
What you can read here is the “end of mission statement” of Mr. Forst. Those who are familiar with the situation in Hungary will not be surprised by his findings. I should add here that the United Nations’ Human Rights Office normally doesn’t send rapporteurs to democratic countries in the European Union. The Hungarian situation, especially after the repeated attacks of the government on the Ökotárs Foundation, caused alarm in the office of the high commissioner.
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End of mission statement by Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Visit to Hungary 8 – 16 February 2016
Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
Let me begin by warmly thanking the Government of Hungary for inviting me and for its cooperation throughout this visit. The objective of my visit was to assess, in the spirit of cooperation and dialogue, the environment in which human rights defenders and civil society operate in the country. Today, I will confine myself to some preliminary observations and recommendations on some of the main issues, which will be elaborated in more detail in the report once I review the materials and documents that I have gathered and been provided with. I will present my final report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in March 2017.
At the outset, I wish to note that I am not employed by United Nations and the position I hold is honorary. As an independent expert, I exercise my professional and impartial judgement and report directly to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.
I would like to commend the Government of Hungary for its excellent cooperation and efforts to ensure that I could make the most from my visit. I have met with high-level representatives of the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs and Justice. I had a chance to meet with representatives of the Legislation Committee of the National Assembly, Prosecutor-General, Ombudsman, Constitutional and Supreme Courts. I also had meetings with the Office of Immigration and Nationality, Government Control Office and National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information. I also met with the Head of the Regional Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and members of the diplomatic corps.
During my visit, I have had the opportunity to visit Budapest, Miskolc and Szeged and meet with a wide range of human rights defenders, academicians and representatives of non-governmental organisations, which reinforced my impression of an active and engaged civil society in Hungary.
I would like to thank everyone who took the time to meet with me and shared their valuable experiences and insights as well as those who helped in organising this visit.
This is the first visit of this mandate to Hungary, a country which has gone through significant and rapid changes over the past decades. Hungary has transitioned towards free market and has set the foundations of democracy after a long period of authoritarianism. However, in the last five years the far-reaching and extensive constitutional changes have had profound effect on the civil society environment. I will explore these changes in more detail later on.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In line with the international human rights law, the primary duty to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms lies with the State. This includes guaranteeing the right of everyone, individually and in association with others, to strive for the protection and realization of human rights. In other words, every one of us has the right to defend all human rights for all.
The Hungarian State is therefore under the obligation to take steps to create necessary conditions, including in the political and legal domains, in order to ensure that everyone in Hungary can enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.
Ensuring a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders is a principal part of that responsibility. My visit has therefore focused primarily on assessing some of the basic elements of such an enabling environment, namely: a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework; access to justice; a strong and independent national human rights institution; effective protection policies and mechanisms paying attention to groups at risk and applying gender-sensitive approach; non-State actors that respect and support the work of defenders; and a strong and dynamic community of defenders.
Conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework
Hungary is a party to fourteen universal human rights treaties and conventions. In this connection, I encourage the Government to ratify the remaining three UN treaties, in particular Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as Conventions on All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
I also recommend that the Government considers mainstreaming human rights into the Hungarian institutional and policy framework, including by adopting a national action plan on human rights with clear and specific goals and indicators.
Overall, human rights defenders have been able to effectively carry out their work in Hungary. I have been very much impressed during my visit by the dynamism and competence displayed by Hungarian civil society, which is made up of over 81,000 registered organisations (53,000 associations and 28,000 foundations).
However, defenders increasingly work in a rather polarised and politicised environment. They are exposed to serious challenges which, in some instances, appear to amount to violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as of their legitimate right to promote and defend human rights, as enshrined in the UN Declaration on human rights defenders. I will now briefly highlight some of these challenges, which will be further developed in my report.
- a) The weakening of the constitutional framework and rule of law
After 1989, the old Soviet constitution was amended by Hungary to ensure constitutional checks and balances in State power. However, since 2011 over a thousand of laws have been introduced in a rushed manner, without any comprehensive debate or meaningful consultation with civil society. These constitutional changes have gradually removed important checks on the executive branch, weakened the Constitutional Court and led to the centralization and tightening of government’s control over the judiciary, the media, religious organizations and other spheres of public life, directly or indirectly affecting human rights. There is a consensus among international, regional and local observers that these measures have in sum weakened a well-functioning democracy.
And because of the disrupted checks and balances and feeble political opposition, human rights defenders who criticize the Government or raise human rights concerns are quickly intimidated and portrayed as “political” or “foreign agents”. They face enormous pressure through public criticism, stigmatization in the media, unwarranted inspections and reduction of state funding. I have received testimonies of specific examples when authorities tried to de-legitimize defenders and civil society representatives and, at the same time, undermine their work through excessive administrative and financial hurdles, as well as criminal defamation.
Unfortunately, the scope of dialogue between civil society and decision-makers has been steadily shrinking, and authorities have displayed growing lack of interest in such dialogue, especially when it entails an exchange of dissenting views.
In addition to unfriendly rhetoric from government officials, independent civil society organisations are denied access to state-run media outlets, face funding impediments, are blacklisted from government cooperation and are subjected to excessive and unjustified inspections.
I urge the Government to ensure that human rights defenders can conduct their work in a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework. In this vein, government officials should refrain from criminalizing defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities. They should instead support the work of independent civil society despite disagreements or criticism of the Government, bearing in mind their invaluable role in advancing Hungarian society. The Government should review and abolish all administrative and legislative provisions that restrict the rights of defenders, and ensure that domestic legislation respects basic principles relating to international human rights law and standards.
- b) Freedom of expression
The legislative changes introduced by the Government have also had an impact on the freedom of expression in the country. The media laws specify new content regulations for all media platforms, outline the powers of the new media regulatory body, and set out sanctions for breaches of the laws. The media itself has also undergone through increased state regulation. Defamation remains a criminal offence in Hungary, and is a charge regularly brought against investigative journalists, defenders and watchdog organisations. Journalists who publish critical articles are blacklisted from accessing public events or officials, or can lose their jobs in retaliation.
Hungary was once renowned for its Act on Freedom of Information, which used to guarantee access to public interest information and was supported by strong oversight institutions, headed by a parliamentary ombudsman. Yet after repeated amendments to the regulatory framework, journalists and watchdog organisations now lament about reduced accessibility of public interest information and frequent denials of requests for such information.
Moreover, the last amendment of July 2015, adopted within days of introduction and without public consultation, allows a government agency that possesses pubic interest data to charge the requesting party ‘labour costs associated with completing the information request’, to be determined by that agency. Even more concerning are reports of a planned draft legislation on postal services. It would apparently exclude the contracts of the Hungarian Post from the scope of freedom of information. It would also exclude requests that “disproportionately hamper the business activities” of Hungarian Post from the scope of public interest information. Human rights defenders justifiably fear that such law, if adopted, will become a precedent to future strings of decrees exempting state-owned companies from freedom of information oversight. I urge the Government to halt its efforts aimed at shrinking the scope of public interest information and the accessibility of such data to civil society. This is essential part of open and good governance, which should be reinforced instead.
- c) Freedom of association
The legal framework in Hungary is generally hospitable to freedom of association. It provides for two legal forms of non-governmental organizations (association and foundation), which are not legally restricted by the type of political activities, unless they seek ‘public benefit status’ that allows for accessing the national cooperation fund.
However, there were critical amendments to two laws: the civil code and the non-profit act, which required NGOs to revise and modify their bylaws. The non-profit act laid out new conditions linking public benefit status to legally-prescribed state services. Due to a combination of complex interpretation of the new conditions, absent legal aid, and lack of awareness of the new requirements, only a small fraction of NGOs that previously had public benefit status reportedly met the deadline of May 2014.
The new civil code required NGOs to amend specific details in their statutes once again, with a grace period of March 2016. The procedure to register an NGO is reported to be lengthy, often involving several rounds of requests by the courts for modifications. The prosecutor’s office, which oversees the legality of civil society’s work – regularly appeals court decisions. According to legal experts, re-registration to obtain the public benefit status takes on average 6-8 months, and for some NGOs it has taken up to 16 months. Although the amended non-profit act foresaw the introduction of a simplified electronic registration system, it was not yet operational at the time of this visit (while business enterprises have already been using simplified online registration). Furthermore, regulations are considered by civil society as unnecessarily bureaucratic and stringent.
I urge the Government to assist civil society organisations in their attempts to comply with new laws by providing them with legal aid and introducing a simple electronic registration system. I further recommend the Government to make registrations more simple, non-onerous and expeditious and adopt ‘notification procedure’, by which associations are automatically granted legal personality as soon as the authorities are notified by the founders that an organization was created. The Government should avoid adopting new laws that would require previously registered associations to re-register.
What I have learnt during the visit indicates that the situation of civil society in Hungary has worsened in the last several years. Besides the more rigid legal environment, the financial sustainability of NGOs, their ability to assert their interests, the underlying infrastructure servicing civil society, general public’s opinion of human rights defenders, and the supporter base of NGOs have all reportedly changed for the worse compared to previous times.
Furthermore, authorities have effectively sought to restrict the work of civil society and increase supervision through such indirect means as investigations on funding, increased auditing, new internet laws and increased media campaigns stigmatising human rights defenders.
Nearly every defender and representative of civil society I have met raised alarm about the deeply regrettable targeting of the Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation (composed of Őkotàrs, Autonomia, Demnet and the Kàrpàtok foundation), which managed the ‘Norwegian NGO Fund’ and other NGOs that benefitted from it. Since August 2013, Őkotàrs and 13 other NGOs receiving European Economic Area (EEA) grants have been stigmatised by newspapers as entities “serving foreign interests”. From April to July 2014, senior government officials from the Prime Minister’s Office called the NGOs “party-dependent, cheating nobodies” and “paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests”. They called for the NGO Fund to be suspended. A number of beneficiary organisations (mostly those working on human rights, women’s rights organisations and watchdogs) were disturbingly blacklisted as ‘dirty 13’ by authorities.
Subsequently, the Government Control Office (KEHI) began to investigate those NGOs and their financed projects. Since KEHI’s mandate extends only to the use of Hungarian public money and the NGO Fund was financed by EEA, the legality of its audits has been questioned. Moreover, KEHI requested that various documents be handed over, but NGOs refused to comply with those requests that demanded names and personal details of their volunteers and participants in their past events.
On 8 September 2014, in a chilling message to civil society, police officers carried out raids in the offices of Őkotárs and Demnet, confiscating their files and computer servers. The raids were found to be unlawful by courts later in January 2015. KEHI also requested the prosecutor to initiate criminal proceedings against the targeted NGOs, despite the fact that external auditing carried out at the request of Norway revealed no irregularities. Even if no breaches of law have been found after the wide-ranging investigation, senior government officials continued to publicly denounce Őkotárs for carrying out its activities in an unlawful manner.
After extensive discussions with representatives of the affected NGOs, KEHI and other government offices, I am concerned about reported breaches of due process. There was clearly no presumption of innocence assumed on the part of the Government, with senior government officials showing openly biased approach against those NGOs and stigmatising them in the media. KEHI’s official website portal only cited news articles that portrayed the NGOs in negative terms, even though it was legally obliged to remain objective in its investigation. And until now, KEHI failed to formally convey the findings of its investigation with the NGOs and publicly announce it closed.
During the meetings with KEHI and other government officials, I was informed that the investigations have now ended, and they have found no violations of the law committed by any NGO. Government officials also admitted the investigation was ‘political’, and that the enormous amount of time and resources spent on scrutinizing civil society in vain could have been directed to unearthing serious white-collar crime in public offices. I am concerned about the harm of the public stigmatisation on the reputation of those NGOs. It is regrettable that there was no public apology for breaches in due process or admission by the Government that the NGOs were proven to be innocent.
With regard to the future cycle of the Norwegian NGO Fund, I was reassured by the Norwegian Government that sustainable funding to independent civil society will be continued in the next funding period of 2014-2021.
- d) Freedom of assembly
The Hungarian law provides guarantees for the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Demonstrations do not require obtaining a police permit, but organizers must inform police of a planned assembly in a public place at least three days in advance. The law authorizes police to prohibit any gathering, if it seriously endangers the peaceful operation of representative bodies or courts or if it is not possible to provide for alternate routes for traffic. A decision to prohibit a public demonstration is open for judicial review. For example, the refusal of peaceful demonstration in front of Prime-Minister’s residence was found unlawful by the court on 4 July 2015.
However, I have heard testimonies that demonstrations by human rights activists promoting the rights of Roma and LGBTI communities are held in the climate of fear and are strictly controlled for safety reasons. Those defenders cannot comprehend why authorities could not take preventive measures to address threats arising from far-right extremists, rather than treat them as source of public insecurity.
There have been also concerns raised about excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the counterterrorism centre against protesting migrants and journalists observing those protests on 16 September 2015. And more recently, I have received reports of indirect intimidation of teachers and trade unionists from Miskolc, who planned to organise a national protest in Budapest on 13 February. Some of the teachers who wanted to participate in the protests were advised by officials to re-consider and police allegedly was asking questions of individuals about their plans to take part in the demonstration.
I urge the Government to ensure protection of defenders who peacefully assemble from individuals or groups of individuals, including agents-provocateurs and counter-demonstrators, who aim at disrupting or dispersing such assemblies. I further urge the Government to ensure that restrictions to peaceful assembly do not impair the essence of the right, are prescribed by law, are proportionate and ‘necessary in a democratic society’, and still allow demonstrations to take place within ‘sight and sound’ of its object and target audience.
Access to justice
A series of legal and constitutional changes have undermined access to justice for human rights defenders in Hungary. For example, access to the Constitutional Court was radically limited by scrapping the previously robust system of actio popularis, which allowed any human rights defender to bring the case to the Court on issues of broader public concern.
The fourth amendment to the constitution of 2013 drastically limited the jurisdiction of the Court, repealing all of the decisions made by the Court before 1 January 2012. As a result, all previous precedents of the Court are not allowed to be invoked in new cases and there no longer judiciary review of laws related to the central budget and taxation issues. The constructional changes banned the Court from reviewing constitutional amendments for substantive conflicts with constitutional principles, a measure which allowed the government to re-introduce through a constitutional amendment the proposals that had been previously struck down by the Court as unconstitutional. The substantively weakened Court is only allowed to review procedural validity of new amendments.
Furthermore, by lowering the retirement age for ordinary judges from 70 to 62, the government managed to remove almost all of the courts’ presidents. The former Constitutional Court found this legislation unconstitutional and contrary to the independence of the judiciary. A new National Judicial Office was established with the power to replace the retiring judges and to name new ones, as well as to reassign specific cases from one court to another.
Out of concern for the situation in the country, the European Parliament adopted a text on 16 December 2015 about the situation in Hungary as a follow up to its resolution of 10 June 2015, calling on the European Commission to initiate ‘rule of law framework’ procedures, a tool designed to tackle emerging systemic threats to the rule of law in an EU member state.
Notwithstanding the above, I have heard many testimonies from defenders indicating their confidence in the overall independence of the judiciary, which continues to provide remedy to violations of their rights and of those individuals who they represent. In this context and given the increasing litigation facing human rights defenders, there is a general agreement among those individuals who I have spoken about the woeful lack of legal assistance. This is particularly the case because of general fear among lawyers to take human rights and sensitive cases for fear of retaliation from the government. I recommend that the Government allocates budgetary resources to ensure independent legal assistance to human rights defenders. I also urge the Government to strengthen the judiciary and make sure that it can operate independently and effectively, as weaknesses in the judicial system and flaws in the legal framework deprive defenders of adequate access to seek justice.
Effective protection policy and mechanisms for human rights defenders
In Hungary, there are no specific policies or mechanism to protect human rights defenders from attacks, threats or harassment. Several testimonies heard during my visit show that some of the most vulnerable human rights defenders, namely those working on migration and Roma would benefit greatly from such protection.
In recent years, several States have developed specific national mechanisms to protect defenders through laws, action policies and mechanisms in consultation with national and international human rights organizations. The work has been underpinned by provisions from the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. I recommend that the Government of Hungary considers establishing a national mechanism on protecting human rights defenders, in consultation with civil society organizations. The national mechanism should also include specific measures to ensure prompt and independent investigation of all violations against defenders, and the prosecution of alleged perpetrators regardless of their status. It should also ensure access to just and effective remedies, including appropriate compensation. I remain available to the Government for any advisory support it may require in this connection.
During the visit, I have heard frequent concerns that human rights has become a ‘political vocation’ and NGOs are often perceived and labeled as ‘political’ entities by government officials, drawing strong negative counter-attacks on critical views. Senior government officials have described NGOs as ‘paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests’, which encouraged authorities to target human rights organizations through surprise financial audits, criminal investigations and public shaming, thus curtailing their activities. I am seriously concerns by the frequency and tenacity of those political statements, which many perceive as an attempt to silence dissenting voices that speak out human rights.
I urge the Government to draw a clear boundary between political debate among political parties and social dialogue with civil society pertaining to the promotion of human rights, and refrain from conflating the two discourses with a view to delegitimizing independent organizations and stifling critical views.
Specific groups of human rights defenders exposed to risks
Not all human rights defenders see their situation as particularly exposed to risk, besides the general stigmatization and shrinking civil society space. However, some human rights defenders face particularly serious challenges that, in some instances, appear to amount to violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as of their legitimate right to defend human rights.
Those groups include women human rights defenders who are exposed to risks both as defenders and women, especially those who promote sexual and reproductive rights. Some of them face multiple and aggravated forms of discrimination, as well as visible and invisible forms of violence that prevents them from carrying out their work in a safe and enabling environment.
LGBTI defenders sometimes face difficult situations and are often subject to social prejudice than others. For example, the 2015 Budapest Pride Parade took place behind a caged police barricade, where activists still experienced threats and hostility from other observers.
Defenders promoting economic, social and cultural rights and environmentalist organizations are sometimes labelled as anti-development when they oppose developmental projects that have detrimental impact on the rights of the local community. Some of those defenders are sued by companies and intimidated by authorities for raising questions about factories or industries, which pose environmental risk.
Whistleblowers play a vital role in exposing corruption, fraud, and mismanagement, and in preventing disasters that arise from negligence or wrongdoing. However, there is little protection granted to whistleblowers, beyond the mere existence of a law on whistleblower protection. Most whistleblowers have been subject to harassment and retaliation, including loss of employment and becoming blacklisted for future employment. The media portrays them in negative terms by shunning and shaming whistleblowers as trouble-makers or foreign agents. This has sent a chilling effect will deter others from denouncing corruption or misconduct by public officials. Those who have suffered from retaliation have sought reinstatement and compensation through the courts, but testimonies received show that a positive outcome is far from guaranteed. The Ombudsman’s function seems to be restricted to receiving reports and forwarding them to competent authorities.
I urge the Government to strengthen legal and policy framework to protect whistleblowers. I recommend reinforcing the existing legislation and establishing a strong and independent national whistleblower agency that would have the power to grant legal protection and support whistleblowers.
During the visit, it has become apparent that defenders that are excessively at risk are Roma activists due to widespread and long-term climate of xenophobia, leading to direct physical threats and intimidation. Several testimonies indicate severe threats or physical attacks against Roma activists throughout the country. In Miskolc, the Roma community and their leaders face a strong rejection by the majority of residents and the local municipality. About 450 Roma residents on the outskirts of Miskolc were “put at risk of forced eviction and possible homelessness” in May 2014. Residents were threatened with eviction in August 2014, as part of the local government’s efforts to “eliminate slums” under a government-sponsored law adopted in May 2014.
Human rights defenders and grass-roots activists working on the rights of asylum-seekers are those who are facing acute risks of threats to their person and their families due to the increased politicization and criminalization of their work. I have received several reports of direct threats, anonymous phone calls and text messages, hacking of personal social media and trolling on the social media.
National human right institution
The previous system of four Ombudsmen was replaced by a parliamentary commissioner for fundamental rights, which decreased the level of protection in relation to certain rights and weakened the institution. The former Ombudsman’s mandate was terminated before the end of their term of office, which was found unlawful by the European Court of Justice in April 2014.
The former Data Protection Ombudsman was transformed into a quasi-governmental authority, which does not comply with the requirement of independence. The previous Ombudsman was elected by the Parliament for a six-year period, while the head of the new authority is appointed exclusively by the Prime Minister for a nine-year period.
The Ombudsman was recently also designated as the National Preventative Mechanism, however the budget of the Office was not increased, hindering its effective operation. Despite the recent accreditation of an (A) as compliant with the Paris Principles, recent amendments to the law and the lack of enforceability of his recommendations have weakened the effectiveness of the Ombudsman’s mandate. In the same vein, the continuous lack of funding could hamper his independence and his capacity to act as a strong and effective mechanism.
In order to ensure the credibility of the work of the Ombudsman, the Government should increase allocated budget to the Office and take measures to ensure adequate follow-up and implementation of his recommendations.
I also recommend that the Ombudsman expands the scope of his activities to be an effective and visible focal point for human rights defenders. He could thus be in a unique position to provide protection for human rights defenders, as it is inherent in his mandate. Human rights defenders could be considered as a specific group at risk and, as such, fall within his mandate. This protection could be offered in a number of ways, including through formal complaints mechanisms and protection programs; advocacy and awareness raising; offering public support when violations are committed against defenders; and capacity building. Protection could also be offered with more specific and direct means, including acting on individual complaints; visiting defenders in detention; and providing legal aid in the context of violations against defenders.
It has become apparent that non-State actors have frequently taken part in the attacks or threats against human rights defenders. According to the international human rights law, the State is responsible to protect human rights defenders from detrimental action by non-State actors aimed at intimidating or threatening defenders and for failing to carry out effective investigations into such cases.
The media landscape is dominated by outlets closely affiliated or loyal to the Government, a phenomenon that has developed over the past decade and bolstered since 2010. Media laws allow political interference in the editorial content of public broadcast channels. Freedom of the press has been severely limited by the laws that restrict the opportunity for diversity of service and established a powerful control mechanism to strictly regulate broadcast, print and online media. This concentration of media in the hands of the Government seriously curtails free access to media by human rights defenders and civil society organizations. As a result, they have little media coverage to raise their concerns, express dissenting views or defend their human rights positions.
I have heard several cases of verbal attacks, physical attacks and threats by far-rights extremists that harbour ultra-nationalist views, mainly targeting members or volunteers of organizations dedicated to migrant’s rights and Roma issues.
I have also met with environmental defenders that pointed out increased criminal defamation litigations by companies, following their actions to protect the right to environmental rights. Local media usually portrays environmentalists and watchdogs as obstructing development.
Community of human rights defenders
I have met with numerous brave and courageous human rights defenders working on different issues during the course of my visit. Those who help asylum seekers, support Roma communities, defend the rights of LGBTI and women, environmentalists, lawyers and social workers. However, the general feeling is that apart of some bigger organizations, some defenders can feel isolated and not sufficiently inter-connected. It appears that NGOs are not strongly embedded into society, and have not gained sufficient support from the broader society for their work, which can undermine their ability to gain support and mobilise.
Similarly, the contraction of available funding has over the years resulted in a greater competition among NGOs, which have become increasingly aware of overlapping projects in the same community and with similar objectives and results. In the work of human rights, collaboration is crucial. A single organization will never have the resources or all the skills necessary to ensure social change and support a global movement of human rights defenders. I recommend civil society organisations in Hungary to establish national and local networks of support, develop and strengthen coalitions with shared objectives, and reinforce partnerships in fund-raising.
It is striking to see how the lack of access to funding can weaken NGOs. Several organizations decided to close their offices, discontinue programmes, and lay off staff due to insufficient or unsustainable funding. In several occasions, NGOs providing community or social services have seen their contract simply discontinued or interrupted, after they published information or testimonies perceived as hostile to the Government. As the access to EU funding is channelled through government-controlled agency, the discontinuation of funding is used as a tool to silence dissent or to encourage self-censorship.
I recommends to civil society organisation to establish stronger links to European and international networks in order to compensate the shortage of independent funding. I call for concrete measures to be put in place to prevent governmental agencies to interrupt or misuse EU funding to favour organizations that are closely affiliated to the Government. I urge the European Union to examine carefully the impact of channelling its financial resources through governmental agencies on the weakening of independent civil society organizations and explore alternative ways to directly fund those organizations.
We need to continue our efforts to raise public awareness of human rights among the general public and foster a spirit of dialogue and cooperation in society.
I would like to conclude by reiterating my preliminary recommendations to various stakeholders.
I recommend that the Government:
- Mainstream human rights into the institutional and policy framework, including by adopting a national action plan on human rights with clear and specific goals and indicators, taking into account recommendations by International and European human rights mechanisms.
- Ensure that human rights defenders can conduct their work in a conducive legal, institutional and administrative framework.
- Refrain from criminalizing defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities, and instead support the work of independent civil society, whatever disagreements may be.
- Review and abolish all administrative and legislative provisions that restrict the rights of defenders, and ensure that domestic legislation respects basic principles relating to international human rights law and standards.
- Formulate a clear policy recognizing the indispensable role of human rights defenders and ensuring their protection.
- Address any attempts to stigmatize human rights defenders, whether by public officials or non-State actors.
- Strengthen the role and independence of the Ombudsman and reinforce his financial autonomy. Consult Ombudsman in the process of developing human rights protection mechanisms and in particular in the establishment of a protection programme for human rights defenders.
- Take measures to ensure adequate follow-up and implementation of the Ombudsman’s recommendations.
- Refrain from shrinking the scope of public interest information and the accessibility of such data to civil society.
- Make registrations of associations more simple, non-onerous and expeditious and adopt ‘notification procedure’.
- Avoid adopting new laws that would require previously registered associations to re-register.
- Allocate budgetary resources to ensure independent legal assistance to human rights defenders, and strengthen the judiciary by ensuring it can operate independently and effectively.
- Ensure protection of defenders who peacefully assemble from individuals or groups of individuals, who aim at disrupting or dispersing such assemblies.
- Ensure that restrictions to peaceful assembly do not impair the essence of the right, are prescribed by law, are proportionate and ‘necessary in a democratic society’, and still allow demonstrations to take place within ‘sight and sound’ of its object and target audience.
- Pay close attention and follow through reports of threats and attacks against human rights defenders. A policy for effective criminal investigations should be defined and investigative working methods should be revised.
- Establish an independent body to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and to supervise the appointment, promotion and regulation of the profession in accordance with international human rights standards. Judges should be ensured tenure in order to exercise their functions in an independent manner.
- I recommend reinforcing the existing legislation and establishing a strong and independent national whistleblower agency that would have the power to grant legal protection and support whistleblowers.
- Review the successive amendments to Act on Freedom of Information in order to guarantee a free and uncontrolled access to information to all human rights defenders and journalists. Withdraw the draft legislation on the National Post.
- Ensure that both public and private actors, including companies, respect human rights defenders and investigate instances where non-State actors commit violations against human rights defenders, leading to prosecution of the responsible and compensation to the victims.
- Establishing a national mechanism on protecting human rights defenders, in consultation with civil society organizations.
I recommend that the Ombudsman:
- Expand the scope of Ombudsman’s activities by serving as public focal point for human rights defenders.
I recommend that human rights defenders:
- Develop and strengthen national and local platforms or networks aimed at protecting defenders and facilitating coordination.
- Become more informed of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and publicise it broadly in society.
- Make full use of United Nations special procedures and other international and European human rights mechanisms, when reporting on human rights violations.
I recommend that non-state actors:
- Political parties, media, private companies and far-right groups should refrain from organising or participating in the attacks, threats or stigmatisation of human rights defenders.
- Public and private media should grant and facilitate free access to their publications and broadcasts for defenders and civil society organizations to publicise their human rights work.
I recommend that international community:
- Intensify efforts to empower and support human rights defenders and civil society organisations.
- Support dialogue and encourage collaboration between the Government of Hungary and civil society organisations in order to ensure human rights in institution-building, development and other programmes and ensure the protection of human rights defenders in these programmes.
- EU should review its policy on funding civil society organizations exclusively only through the state budget and develop additional and alternative sources of funding ensure free and non-politicized access to funding for all civil society organizations.