Tag Archives: Nils Muižnieks

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

Full-court press against the Orbán government

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó compared the European Union to an old gent with halting steps, but lately the old man has quickened his stride. At least as far as Brussels’ relation with Hungary is concerned. Patience seems to have run out with Hungary’s maverick prime minister, Viktor Orbán. One after the other, officials of the EU and the Council of Europe have called on the Hungarian government to explain its past unlawful or at least legally questionable moves.

First came, on November 19, the official announcement that “the European Commission decided to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning the implementation of the Paks II nuclear power plant project.” The reaction of the Hungarian government was predictable. János Lázár, instead of talking about the actual case–the lack of an open tender, which is an EU requirement–talked about the EU allegedly prohibiting Hungary from signing bilateral commercial agreements with so-called third countries. For details see my post titled “Infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the Paks nuclear power plant.” Hungary has two months to give a satisfactory answer. If the answer is not satisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

Four days later, on November 23, it was announced that “the European Commission has opened an in-depth state aid investigation into Hungary’s plans to provide financing for the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Paks.” The question is “whether a private investor would have financed the project on similar terms or whether Hungary’s investment constitutes state aid.” Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy, and her staff think that “this investment may not be on market terms, as Hungary argues.”

Two days after the announcement of the second in-depth investigation, on November 25, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in the Bundestag in which she talked about solidarity as “the acid test” for the maintenance of the borderless Schengen area. She stressed that “a distribution of refugees according to economic strength and other conditions … and the readiness for a permanent distribution mechanism … will determine whether the Schengen area will hold in the long term.” The speech was interpreted as a sharp warning aimed at the new EU members. Hungary’s immediate reaction was that Hungary couldn’t possibly take any refugees because its economic situation wouldn’t allow such generosity. The government spokesman talked about 15,000 possible “migrants,” who in time would bring other family members. Within a few years Hungary would be stranded with close to 200,000 Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

On November 27 Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, after spending three days in Hungary, issued a statement about Hungary’s response to the current refugee crisis and came to the conclusion that “Hungary has not lived up to this challenge.” He complained about the “accelerated asylum procedure lacking essential safeguards.” Under this new procedure “asylum-seekers have seen their claim processed in less than a day and sent back to Serbia directly from the Röszke transit zone.” Muižnieks also noted that the crisis measures Hungary introduced are still in effect although hardly any refugees are in Hungary. After detailing all the reproachable and outright illegal pieces of legislation and practices, he called on the Hungarian government “to refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric linking migrants to social problems or security risks.”

By that time Szijjártó became convinced that “a mysterious conspiracy is unfolding against Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, “it is evident that some people would like see an opaque and confused situation in Hungary.”

On the very same day it was reported that the European Commission had given the green light to a citizens’ initiative launched by the European Humanist Federation (EHF) to strip Hungary of its voting rights in the European Union. What is a citizens’ initiative? According to the official explanation, “a European citizen’s initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states.” A list of these minimum numbers can be found online. In Hungary’s case only 15,750 valid signatures are needed.

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens' initiative on their website

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens’ initiative

The European Humanist Federation launched its initiative called “Wake up Europe!” on October 2. Its official website outlines the reasons for the initiative. Nine individuals from eight countries charge Viktor Orbán’s government with “anti-democratic and xenophobic measures that openly violate the basic principles of the rule of law.” In response, “a committee of EU citizens has launched an ECI to call on the European Commission to trigger Article 7 of TEU and bring the Hungarian issue to the Council.”

The Commission approved this citizens’ initiative on a day when Tibor Navracsics, the commissioner representing Hungary, happened to be away. Navracsics “in a strongly-worded letter criticized the decision to hold the meeting in his absence as well as the substance of the initiative.” He claimed that this was “a sensitive political issue” which could result in consequences reaching “far beyond the aim of the initiative.” Szijjártó considered the acceptance of the citizens’ initiative by the Commission to be a case of “revenge by Brussels” for “the successful migration policy of Hungary.”

The most fanciful explanation for the launch of the citizens’ initiative in the first place came from Magyar Idők. The editorial board of this pro-government paper is convinced that, once again, it is George Soros who is behind this attack on Hungary and Viktor Orbán. The explanation, according to Magyar Idők, is simple. Since the European Humanist Federation’s affiliated partners all share Soros’s concept of an Open Society, the EHF must be a front organization for Soros. Moreover, since the Commission accepted the EHF’s citizens’ initiative, “IN ADDITION TO THE CIVIC GROUPS THE EU COMMISSIONERS ARE ALSO IN SOROS’S POCKET.” Yes, in boldface caps. Magyar Idők accuses the commissioners of purposely picking a date when Navracsics would not be present.

Yes, it seems that the whole world is against the poor, innocent Orbán government. But pulling the strings is one man who has the power to move twenty-seven commissioners and their staff to make a concerted attack not just against Hungary but against the very idea of the “nation state.” I don’t know how effective such simple-minded explanations are, but I guess they might resonate with some people, especially since Soros’s name is associated with Jewishness and financial speculation, notions that are anathema to the far right.

Well, George Soros may not be pulling the strings in Brussels, but Viktor Orbán definitely is in Budapest. And through his mouthpieces he’s sounding more and more like Jobbik (and as a result is siphoning off Jobbik supporters).

NGOs as threats to the building of Orbán Viktor’s “illiberal democracy”

Yesterday while analyzing Viktor Orbán’s latest speech I concentrated on the topic that aroused the greatest outrage in opposition circles, the Hungarian prime minister’s plans to introduce a so-called “illiberal democracy.”

Here I would like to talk about a topic that at first glance might seem tangential to these plans: the NGOs and civic groups in general. While Orbán dispassionately lectured his audience on the state of the world and Hungary’s place in it, he became visibly agitated when he turned to this topic. We may think that the question of who distributes the relatively small amount of money provided to Hungary by the EEA and Norwegian Grants is not worth a major international fight, but Viktor Orbán does not see it that way. For him the issue is of critical political importance.

I wrote earlier about the controversy surrounding these funds. Currently, a private organization distributes the funds, an arrangement that Hungary and the Norway Fund agreed to earlier. Sometime in the spring the Hungarian government unilaterally changed the rules of the game by insisting that the Budapest government should be responsible for the dispersion of the funds among the various civic organizations. The Norway Fund resisted the idea. After all, these civic groups are supposed to be, at least in part, the watchdogs of the government in power. Giving the government the right to decide which NGOs can and which cannot receive money would defeat the whole purpose.

Right now there is a standoff between Budapest and Oslo. Even the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, wrote a letter to János Lázár in which he expressed his displeasure at the government’s allegations that the Norwegian NGO Fund was used to support political activities in Hungary. He tried to explain that NGOs “should be able to pursue their public watchdog function … without undue interference in their internal functioning.” Lázár wasn’t moved. He argued that the Norwegian NGO funds “constitute public money, [and] it is the moral obligation of the Hungarian Government to order every measure in its discretion which is necessary for the thorough investigation of the questions to be examined, or the contents of the supported activities.” The sentence might be convoluted, but the message clear: Lázár insists on government oversight.

Why is this relatively small amount of money of such great political concern for the Orbán government? We can find the answer in Viktor Orbán’s speech delivered yesterday at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad. These independent NGOs threaten the illiberal state he is building. He looks upon the NGOs, especially the ones that receive funds from abroad, as impediments to his plans. And as far as he is concerned, this is a very serious matter. As he put it, “here we are confronted with paid political activists. Moreover, these paid political activists are foreign paid political activists. Political activists paid by definable foreign interest groups about whom it is hard to imagine that they consider the sums given by them as social projects. Instead, our suspicion is justified that through this instrument [the NGOs] they try–in a given moment and in a given question–to influence Hungarian political life.” Therefore, the decision was made to create a parliamentary committee whose job will be “the continuous observation, recording, and release of foreign attempts at influence peddling. ”

NGOs2And this was just the beginning of his tirade. He complained about the fact that some of the people who administer these projects are getting paid from abroad, from the money allocated to Hungary, and that their salaries are greater than the salaries of Hungarian civil servants in similar positions and rank. He complained that  35% of the funds are wasted on overhead costs, which is intolerable. Once the Hungarian government gets hold of the funds, these costs will be reduced to a maximum of 15%.

Administrators in Brussels and in Oslo will have to be prepared for a protracted and ugly fight because Orbán is adamant: foreign money is not going to be used to undermine his government. If the Norwegian Fund decides to stick it out, the case most likely will end up in the European Court of Human Rights. Commissioner Nils Muižnieks in his letter to Lázár alluded to that possibility when he stated that “the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the role of NGOs in democratic society is clear: when an NGO draws attention to matters of public interest, it is exercising a public watchdog role of similar importance to that of the press.” And he mentions the 2007 ruling in Zhechev v. Bulgaria as a case in point. In brief, Muižniek recommends that Hungary back down because, if the case gets all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, defeat is certain. Not that Viktor Orbán cares about court decisions. He will do, if and when it comes, what he has done in the past. Blithely ignore the decision.