Tag Archives: nongovernmental organizations

Miklós Haraszti: Countering illiberal usurpations of democracy

In my post about the visit of the European Parliament’s rapporteur to Budapest, I noted that coincidentally, in Brussels, there was a book launch for a new work by NGOs from Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. The title of the book is Resisting Ill Democracies in Europe. The study is now available online in English, Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. It documents the workings of illiberal governments through the experiences of the most important NGOs in the various countries. Hungary is represented by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The book has five chapters dealing with various aspects of the problems facing civil society in these countries: traditional values and illiberal trends, a case study of illiberal governments, human rights and the rule of law, practices and strategies to inspire civil society, and laying foundations for civil society to resist.

Miklós Haraszti wrote the foreword (“Countering Illiberal Usurpations of Democracy”) to the book, which is republished below. Haraszti is an author and director of research on human rights at the Center for European Neighborhood Studies of Central European University. In the past he wrote two articles for this blog, and, since he is a faithful follower of Hungarian Spectrum, he often contributes discerning comments to our discussions.

In recent years, an epidemic of anti-civil society laws has been hitting many new democracies on several continents. They are made to tighten the conditions for government-independent citizen activities. The latest legislative fashion is unrolling internationally, based on models designed in the Kremlin. It punishes global networking of civil endeavors or international sponsoring for non-profit activism, by labeling its actors as ‘foreign agents’.

The spreading of these restrictive regulations is a clear sign of the degradation of the freshly attained liberal constitutionalism toward illiberal or outright authoritarian governance. It is more than just a side-effect: the crusade against “unofficial” civil associations is basic household cleaning for illiberal regimes. They have set out to transform democracy from a cooperative and pluralistic enterprise into a disguise for a game where the winner sets the rules.

The illiberals have a reason. Civil activism is the nearest thing to the raw energy that fills and regenerates freedom in any society. Citizen activities are both the beginnings and the finest fruits of a democracy. When we see them purposefully hindered, cynically vilified, and even criminalized, this is in fact done to stop them from reaching out to society or from monitoring the government. We should remember that both these public roles are inherent in their independence.

Because populist power grabs are ‘democratically’ justified (“we have elections, don’t we”), it is not immediately clear for the public just how central the assaults on civil society are for the illiberal outcome. The watchdogs need to be silenced so the illiberal actions can go on: the elimination of transparency in the use of public money; the subordination of all branches of power to the executive; the systematic thwarting of autonomies; the streamlining of the judiciary; and the curtailing of the rights to free assembly, association, and media pluralism.

I suggest we take the rage of the illiberals against independent civil society at surface value. When the illiberal rulers stamp NGOs as foreign agents, they do not simply seek to diminish criticism using a nationalist ideology. The illiberals want the citizens to see the government not just as temporary and partial representatives of the nation – they want the government to be identified with the nation, and squeeze out independent activism as alien and even hostile to the nation.

So let’s react accordingly. Civil power, unhindered NGOs – just as a pluralistic media –are the ultimate frontiers in defending freedom in society. Unfortunately, under illiberal regimes, the traditional political process is not anymore able to correct the systematic distortion of competition rules, or put checks and balances back to work. This is because the populist illiberals and autocrats have utilized those very guarantees to first get to the top and then to eliminate the built-in barriers to absolute power.

Where can help come from, when the economy has been turned into a nepotistic fiefdom, political parties into parliamentary padding, and the media into mere decorations of preordained elections? Change could only come from the remaining unchecked, globally rooted social forces, the mercurial civil society, and its increasingly Internet-based communications strategies.

Importantly, the freedom of civil society and free media are growingly the same cause as internet-based connectivity becomes a fact of life. Can you tell apart what the illiberal rulers are angrier with: the fact-finding activities of the watchdog NGOs, or their communications-based ability to actually convey their findings to all citizens, despite that the rulers have occupied all traditional media? Russia’s Alexei Navalny or Hungary’s Márton Gulyás have practically reinvented public-service media, as part of their civic activity, illuminating the way to a reinvented, post-illiberal democracy.

One main weapon of the illiberals is the slogan of ‘internal affairs’, the notion of sovereignty utilized to push the management of global developments back into a territorial matter. Think of the laws aimed to domesticate the global Internet or sometimes simply to stall the growing bandwidth.

The illiberal regimes wage a two-level battle against any form of international togetherness of worldwide civic aspirations. One is, paradoxically, through the established intergovernmental organizations and legal instances. In such fora, they perfectly team up with all other governments that want to send internationalism back to hell. But the words they internally use for mobilization belie the elevated arguments about sovereignty. Domestically, the illiberal rulers are just plain nationalist populists. Their science consists of enhancing and weaponizing the explosive force of age-old basic instincts: ethnic or religious exclusivism and xenophobia.

Therefore, all international friends of civic freedom have to remember what is at stake here: the fate of universal human rights and ultimately, the guarantees of peace. Immanuel Kant, the reclusive philosopher from Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), is right on target, more now than ever. His triple formula of ‘eternal peace’ suggested that, for global peace to materialize, it is necessary but not sufficient to have democracies in all countries. Not even an international alliance of democracies will be enough to secure that goal. The final guarantee of peace must be, he said, the international enforceability of individual human rights.

See the new Berlin Wall erected: the ‘foreign agent’ type anti-NGO regulations. This time, the divides are built of legal provisions, not concrete and steel. But their function is the same: to eliminate the indivisibility of human rights, proclaimed by the international community after WW2 – and in fact, the main lesson of WW2.

I hope this handbook will help us deeper cultivate the rationale for civil society: freedom in peace, at home and worldwide. And that it will make us more mindful in countering the illiberal usurpations of democracy, at home and worldwide.

January 14, 2018

Mária Schmidt on George Soros, the grave digger of the left, Part II

Yesterday I began dissecting Mária Schmidt’s latest propaganda piece,“The Grave Digger of the Left,” which offers up second-hand conspiracy theories about George Soros’s philanthropic endeavors. In the second part of my analysis I will concentrate on the “Hungarian experience” with “Sorosism,” as she calls Soros’s “ideology mix.”

In Schmidt’s view, Hungary was a guinea pig for Soros, who learned the tools of his evil trade in the country of his birth. It was in Hungary that he figured out the kinds of organizations worth investing in, organizations that would then “serve his interests.” He quickly discovered that Prime Minister József Antall and his successor, Péter Boross, both of MDF, were not willing to be partners in his shady schemes. So, Soros had to concentrate on liberal intellectuals in the social sciences and in the cultural sphere in general. He used decoys like programs for the Roma and providing medical supplies to hospitals to lure people into his camp.

He was so successful that by today “left” in Hungary equals “Soros.” All of his pet projects have been adopted by the Hungarian liberals and socialists: political correctness, the environment, feminism, same sex marriage, support of migrants, legalization of prostitution, etc.

Schmidt, who begins her essay with a quotation from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” further exhibits her familiarity with Western pop culture by comparing Soros to “the evil but super intelligent Silva” in the Bond film Skyfall, who “with obsessive and missionary zeal aims at world domination.” Soros’s results, she admits, have been spectacular. For example, “as everybody knows, the network of Soros’s civilians was behind the colorful revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Arab spring.” In fact, at one point Schmidt charges that Soros himself boasted about his success in creating “a Soros Empire out of the Soviet Union.” I don’t know how we all missed the “fact” that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the handiwork of George Soros. Now, according to Schmidt, Soros’s target is the European Union itself.

Mária Schmidt’s “evil but super intelligent Silva”

At this point we get to the real reason Schmidt wrote this essay. Viktor Orbán’s vicious anti-migrant rhetoric has been extremely effective, with the overwhelming majority of Hungarians now the most xenophobic group in all of Europe. The hatred Orbán planted in Hungarian souls has taken root. The challenge for the Hungarian government is how to keep nurturing this hatred. By now there are no migrants around, and there is fear in government circles that this hatred may wither over time. And if it withers, support for Orbán may wither as well.

The government has therefore begun to personalize the migrant crisis, coming up with enemies who can in one way or another be tied to it. Soros, of course, tops the list. Time and again Orbán has blamed “the migrant crisis” on George Soros. Since Central European University was founded by George Soros and some of the NGOs receive small amounts of money from the Hungarian-American financier, they can be targeted. And Brussels is an old stand-by. Whatever the problem, Brussels is always at fault.

To xenophobic Hungarians the very mention of outside influence or pressure on the country makes them flock to Orbán as their only defense against this “foreign invasion.” And since Viktor Orbán has as his overarching goal to remain in power regardless of the cost to the country and its people, this goal is well served by calling attention in every way possible to the dangers foreigners (migrants as well as international capitalists) pose to the Hungarian way of life.

Central European University is in the government’s crosshairs because, as Schmidt puts it, the university is Soros’s “replenishing base” for liberal cadres in Hungary and elsewhere. An illiberal state, one would think, cannot allow such a place to exist within its borders. But Schmidt doesn’t go that far, most likely because she knows that the tug of war between the Orbán government and CEU won’t end with closing the university in Budapest. So she is satisfied to state the lie that the government, by insisting that the same rules apply to CEU as to other Hungarian universities, only wants to send the message that George Soros “isn’t omnipotent and invulnerable.”

Her final shots are directed not just at Central European University but also at the kinds of universities that exist in English-speaking countries and that are so highly valued worldwide. She tells us how enthusiastic she was when CEU moved to Budapest. Many people, herself included, looked upon it as a sign of the end of the old university system. Soon enough, however, they realized that CEU didn’t contribute to pluralism within the social sciences. On the contrary, it became a supporter of “post-communists.” Instead of employing the old Hungarian Marxists, the university imported western ones. “Discarded American, Canadian, Israeli, Western European Marxists found secure positions for a few pleasant years in the departments of CEU,” she charges. And just as they became disillusioned with CEU, over the years Schmidt and her ideological comrades became disillusioned with Anglo-Saxon type universities in general. Now that she and her comrades speak English and are well informed about the world, unlike in the Kádár years, they know about the intolerance in American and British universities where they don’t want to listen to voices contrary to their liberal tenets. Hungarians “don’t want to have ‘safe spaces’ for those at CEU who don’t want to listen to others.”

Schmidt’s blanket labeling of all those who teach at CEU as “discarded Marxists” shows an ideological blindness that is appalling, especially from someone who has academic pretensions. And her reference to the “safe spaces” inside the walls of CEU is outright frightening. If Orbán, Schmidt, and their ideological partners keep going down the road they embarked on in 2010, the Hungarian younger generation who, according to Schmidt’s own admission, has been poisoned by Soros, will find “safe spaces” outside the country. We are getting close to this point.

April 17, 2017

One of Donald Trump’s first victims may be the Hungarian NGOs

An article appeared today in The Guardian predicting a new crackdown on Hungarian NGOs. The timing is no coincidence. Viktor Orbán’s illiberal government has been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who will not raise his voice in defense of critics of the Hungarian government in the name of democracy.

A few hours after the publication of the article, Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz, announced the government’s intention to get rid of “the pseudo-civilians” of the Soros Empire. In Németh’s vocabulary, “pseudo-civilians” are foreign political agents who represent the “global plutocracy and the world of political correctness above the heads of the national governments. These organizations should be forced back, and, I believe, they should be thrown out. I feel that the international opportunity for such a move has arrived.” The “international opportunity,” of course, is the election of Donald Trump, as Péter Krekó, an associate of Political Capital, a think tank of political scientists, pointed out to The Guardian.

The announcement of the government’s intentions regarding foreign-subsidized NGOs was not unexpected. Just before the holidays Orbán gave an interview to 888.hu in which he was quite explicit about his feelings toward the NGOs critical of his government. According to him, they are being used by antagonistic powers and their agents, like George Soros, to advance their own interests in foreign countries. Therefore, these organizations must be banished. Not only Hungary will move against them, but “all countries” in Europe. The year 2017 will be about Soros in this sense. “One can feel it coming when each country will trace the source of these monies; they will find out what kinds of connections exist between them and the intelligence communities; and which NGO represents what interests…. [2017] will be about the extrusion of the forces symbolized by Soros.” One cannot be more explicit. The only question was just when in 2017 the onslaught would begin.

It is unlikely that Donald Trump will be upset if Viktor Orbán follows in Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. In 2012 Putin introduced a law requiring non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves to be “foreign agents.”

George Soros recently wrote an opinion piece in project-syndicate.org in which he didn’t hide his feelings about the president-elect, whom he called “a would-be dictator.” He described Trump’s cabinet as being full of “incompetent extremists and retired generals.” He predicted that “Trump will have greater affinity with dictators,” which will allow “some of them to reach an accommodation with the US, and others to carry on without interference.”

Soros’s attack on Trump naturally elicited counterattacks on the financier by the pro-Trump media. Articles appeared with headlines like “Soros and Other Far Leftists Instigate Revolution against Trump,” “Billionaire Globalist Soros Exposed as Hidden Hand against Trump,” “Busted! Soros-Backed Pro Clinton Group Caught Funding Violent Protests,” and many more. Orbán can rest assured that no one will be terribly upset in Trump’s White House or State Department about the harassment of Hungarian NGOs. Under these circumstances Orbán can feel pretty safe.

By the time Orbán gave his interview to 888.hu, initial plans for the elimination of NGOs were already in place. On December 14, Zsolt Semjén, who serves as Orbán’s deputy, sent a modification proposal to a 2012 law on non-governmental organizations to the president of the parliament, which apparently will discuss and most likely enact it into law before April. One of the important changes is that “officeholders of non-governmental organizations” will have to submit financial statements just like members of parliament. What’s wrong with such a requirement? In the first place, salaries of officials of nongovernment organizations have nothing to do with the public purse. Second, knowing the Hungarian government’s practices, it’s likely that the Hungarian Internal Revenue Service would immediately begin to discredit those people who are seen as standing in the way of the government. In addition to this change, there is a vaguely worded reference to “the legal environment of the civic association” that will be rewritten. For the time being, officials of NGOs have no idea what this means, but “in light of the Orbán interview” it is worrisome that the proposal includes references to “the adoption of solutions that have worked” in other countries. The fear is that the Orbán government has Putin’s solution in mind.

NGO officials believe that the elimination of organizations will take place in stages. First, the usual character assassination will take place after the submission of financial statements. Second, the NGOs will have far more administrative obligations, which will take time and money away from their useful activities. As a third step, the government might accuse them of espionage and treat them as sources of danger to national security. They could be accused of treasonous activities against the legitimate government of their own country as agents of foreign powers.

According to rumors, behind the scenes the Hungarian government has been trying to convince George Soros “to limit his presence to the financing of the Central European University” and to stop giving any more grants to the 60 or so organizations that are the beneficiaries of his generosity.

For the time being, it looks as if neither the Open Society Institute (OSI) nor the NGOs are intimidated. They insist that they will continue as before. In the first place, some of these organizations, like Transparency International (TI), receive only a small fraction of their funding from the Soros Foundation. In fact, one of TI’s largest contributors is the European Union. The director of TI, József Martin, can’t imagine that the government would dare to ban TI because by this act “Hungary would remove itself from the community of free countries.” In Martin’s place, I would be less sanguine that Viktor Orbán cares what the community of free countries thinks.

The Hungarian Helsinki Commission gets about a third of its budget from OSI. In addition, it receives financial help from the European Commission and the United Nations High Commission. Its position, I believe, is less secure than that of TI. After all, it deals with human rights, something that leaves Viktor Orbán and his friends cold. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) is unfortunately heavily dependent on the Open Society Foundation.

Szilárd Németh’s announcement of the government’s intentions to eventually eliminate NGOs prompted the usual protestations from the left. MSZP couldn’t come up with anything more original than the demand that “Szilárd Németh must leave public life.” Sure thing. He will rush to oblige. DK reminded Viktor Orbán that, no matter how strong a feeling of affinity he has for Vladimir Putin, “this place, in the Carpathian Basin, is not called Russia.”

In the past, we kept trying to convince ourselves that surely this or that move of the government would not be tolerated by the European Union, the Council of Europe, or the Venice Commission. Be it the new constitution, the media law, or the building of a nuclear power plant on Russian money by a Russian company that received the job without competitive bidding. And what happened? Almost nothing. A few sentences were changed in the constitution. So, let’s not try to shift the burden to the EU. There is only one way to put an end to this nightmare: to get rid of Orbán and his minions in 2018.

January 10, 2017

Hungary quits the Open Government Partnership in a huff

Yesterday the Associated Press reported the Hungarian government’s decision to quit the Open Government Partnership (OGP), “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

OGP was formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed OGP’s Declaration and announced their countries’ action plans. Since 2011, 62 other countries joined, including Hungary, which signed its letter of intent on July 10, 2012. In this letter of intent the Orbán government declared that “it attached the utmost importance to cooperation with civil organizations.” It was the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice under Tibor Navracsics that represented the Hungarian government in this particular undertaking, which claimed at the time that “it supports the effective implementation of the OGP commitments.” It also promised “in person consultations with the civil organizations and experts regularly on a monthly basis.”

These were the promises, but according to the recollections of the participants, after the initial good working relations “the process started to slow down as the document reached the political level.” The final commitments were vague and greatly weakened. By 2014 it was clear that the Hungarian government’s “sole purpose with its membership was the opportunity to communicate its devotion to open government” to the international community.

Hungary is the second country whose government is not ready to abide by guidelines set by the Steering Committee of OGP and endorsed by them. The first country to leave OGP was Putin’s Russia, which had joined the organization in April 2012. A year later, on May 17, 2013, the Russian government informed the group of its decision to leave. Russia’s participation in this group was dubious from the very beginning, but there were other countries whose commitments to the ideals of OGP were also questionable. OGP acknowledged in February 2014 that Lithuania, Malta, and Turkey had failed to meet their commitments as members of the Open Government Partnership. Warnings were issued to these three states. In addition, the Steering Committee redefined standards for suspending members. “Two warnings in a row would trigger a discussion about continued membership of OGP countries” that create hostile environments for civil society.

By October 2014 new rules were in place that made suspension of membership practically automatic if any country limits the freedom of information; limits the activities of civic groups; favors civic groups attached in some way to the government; limits the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; limits freedom of the press, independence of the media, or engages in the intimidation of media owners. 444.hu’s eagle-eyed reporters noted the OGP’s tightened rules for suspension, adding that they are tailor-made for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The first victim of the new suspension rules was Azerbaijan. In March 2016 the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee recommended the move because “such constraints are evident in the laws on grants, non-governmental organizations, incarceration of NGO activists and journalists” that would precipitate “OGP’s response policy.” At that time, it was noted, “similar NGO complaints that the Hungarian government is restricting civil society remain under consideration.” In addition, Turkey was suspended in September 2016 because it had failed to deliver a National Action Plan since 2014.

Prior to this time the Orbán government had begun a war against Hungarian nongovernmental groups, financed mostly by the Norway Grants but also by the Soros Foundation. The government accused these NGOs of representing foreign interests and proceeded to raid their offices. At that point four leaders of NGOs decided to follow their colleagues in Azerbaijan and launch a formal complaint against the Orbán government. Fanny Hidvégi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Sándor Léderer of K-Monitor Watchdog for Public Funds, Miklós Ligeti of Transparency International Hungary, and Júlia Keserű of the Sunlight Foundation wrote a letter to the members of the OGP Steering Committee. The letter is available on the internet.

After considering the complaints submitted by Hungarian NGO leaders, OGP proposed several remedies that the Orbán government should adopt. It suggested the establishment of a Permanent Dialogues Mechanism (PDM) within sixty days that would ensure the participation of the relevant government agencies and interested civil society organizations. What must have especially irritated the Orbán government was that “all members of the public will be kept informed about all core aspects of the national OGP process—and especially know well in advance … about the key moments to provide inputs and discuss priorities.” OGP demanded five so-called Smart Recommendations that the Orbán government would never accept: monitoring of public disclosure practices of local government and state-owned enterprises; reviewing party and campaign financing regulations; revising the freedom of information regulations; revising regulations on classified information; and launching e-procurement. For easy access to this document, I am attaching it in full at the end of this post.

After reading these “recommendations” I’m not at all surprised that the Orbán government accepted the odium of withdrawal. A semi-autocratic, illiberal government of the kind that exists in Hungary today would never agree to such demands.

So, let’s see how the official government media explained the decision. Magyar Idők justified the Hungarian decision by citing OGP’s “one-sided criticism” of the Orbán government based on the unfair accusations of “civilians financed by George Soros.” These NGOs serve foreign interests and have been spreading false stories about the Hungarian government. Transparency International and TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the Civil Liberties Union, had complained to the organization about the Orbán government already in October 2012, shortly after Hungary joined OGP. In January 2013 K-Monitor allied with TASZ and TI in a new attack. And here was the latest one. It was high time to quit this unfair organization.

In the opinion of Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of Fidesz, Hungary’s abandonment of the organization “actually sheds a very positive light on us because we do not want to participate in an organization where members carry on a conversation among themselves after which they single out somebody whom they are trying to keep at bay with one-sided reports, distortions of facts, with documents prepared by phony civil organizations mostly financed by George Soros.” It was a good decision, “a lovely gift for the time when they can get together again and they can nod against Hungary.” Németh is referring to the Open Government Global Summit, which is being held at this very moment in Paris.

The opposition’s interpretation of the move was predictable. They pointed out that the Orbán government no longer cares what the world thinks of it because surely, following in Russia’s footsteps, they are practically admitting that they are corrupt to the core. Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, said that Hungary’s eventual suspension from the organization was inevitable. But the country’s withdrawal from the organization a day before the beginning of the Global Summit was unnecessary in that Hungary was not facing suspension at this time. The demands the organization made on the Orbán government, however, were more than the “proud Magyar” could stomach.

♦ ♦ ♦

December 8, 2016

The situation of Hungarian human rights defenders: mission statement by UN special rapporteur Michel Forst

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.

♦  ♦  ♦

Michel Forst, rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Michel Forst, rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Non-State actors

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.
February 18, 2016

The war between the Hungarian government and the NGOs continues

I’m sure that most readers of Hungarian Spectrum are familiar with the tug-of-war between the Norwegian and the Hungarian governments over the disbursement of the Norwegian Civic Funds. These funds are specifically designed to support non-governmental organizations that are involved with issues like democracy and human rights, gender and equal opportunity, youth and children’s issues, the environment, basic services to vulnerable groups, and the empowerment of minority groups, including the Roma. These issues are not exactly high on the priority list of authoritarian governments like the present one in Hungary. Hence the Hungarian government’s harassment of NGOs.

It was about a year ago, right after the election, that attacks on the Hungarian distributors of these funds began. Since that time I wrote three or four posts on the ups-and-downs of the negotiations between János Lázár, the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, and Vidar Helgesen, the minister in charge of European affairs in the Norwegian government. The Norwegians, unlike officials of the European Union, have refused to cave in to Hungarian demands.

Why did I decide to return to the topic of the Norwegian Civic Funds? Because in the last three months two different independent firms looked over the Hungarian NGOs that are in charge of disbursement and found everything in order. The first firm the Norwegian government hired, Creda Consultinggave high marks to the consortium that handled the disbursement of the funds. It was praised for its “most innovative elements among the 15 NGO programs assessed across Europe.” I’m sure that Creda’s praise for “Ökotárs,” the fund operator, didn’t impress the Hungarian government, which over the last year came up with charges against it–“one for every season,” as Veronika Móra, director of Ökortárs, put it in a recent op/ed article in HVG.

In January the Norwegian government asked the accounting firm PKF Littlejohn to take a look at Ökotárs’s books because, among other things, the Hungarian government accused it of embezzlement. PKF Littlejohn found no evidence of any wrongdoing. Moreover, the accountants didn’t just look at the fund operator’s financial dealings; they also checked on the activities of several recipients of the funds. They didn’t run into any major problems.

After receiving the final results, the Norwegian foreign ministry announced that “Norway stands ready for a dialogue.” The question is whether the Hungarian government is willing to engage in such a conversation. One would think that after two independent expert assessments, the Hungarian government would give up and not risk losing the substantial amount of money the Hungarian government itself receives from the Norway Funds. But I’m not at all sure that the government in Budapest will retreat any time soon. I assume that Norway is satisfied with the way their funds are being dispersed to the NGOs and that a dialogue with János Lázár on this topic would not be a bargaining session. For Lázár to accept the current arrangement would mean defeat for the Hungarian government.

Veronika Móra in her op/ed piece rightly pointed out that the attack on Ökotárs and the Norway Civic Fund is only part of a general assault against NGOs in general. They are the victims of “a deliberate political strategy” aimed at their elimination. Viktor Orbán in his infamous speech that included a reference to “illiberal democracy” called NGOs “paid political activists.” Of course, there are “good NGOs,” those that are involved only in charitable activities. By definition, the Norwegian Civic Fund belongs to the “bad NGO” category. All of the targeted areas defined by the managers of the fund involve public policy. Lázár at one point accused the Norwegian government of deliberately trying to topple the Hungarian government. A few months later Orbán in an interview with Bloomberg talked about registering NGOs that receive funds from abroad. Just the kind of procedure Vladimir Putin introduced.

Normally, after a while, the Hungarian government retires from direct fights of this sort. For example, lately neither Lázár nor his assistant undersecretary, Nándor Csepreghy, speaks about the NGO issue. They assigned the job to the leaders of their own creation CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum/Civic Collaboration Forum), the group that organized the pro-government marches every time Viktor Orbán felt that he needed a show of force for his political survival. Although the leaders of CÖF hotly deny it, the organization is most likely financed by the Hungarian government.

CÖF’s “legal adviser,” Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr., who calls himself a “constitutional expert,” is now the designated spokesman for the government strategy. He is being touted as “one of the most eminent experts” on the subject. According to him, four-fifths of Hungarian NGOs are financed in whole or in part by George Soros. As for the causes these NGOs are involved in–the Roma, drug prevention, and the disabled, according to Lomniczi these are not the most burning issues in today’s Hungary. “The defense of mental hygiene” as a result of the negative influence of the media or the “disfranchisement of Hungarians” in Slovakia or in Serbia are causes that deserve attention. The “eminent expert” accused the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, TASZ, of not raising its voice at the time of the police attack on “innocent demonstrators” in 2006 October. In fact, it was TASZ who took up the defense of those who were the victims of unnecessary force.

Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr. listening to Veronika Móra at ATV's program, Csatt

Zoltán Lomniczi, Jr. listening to Veronika Móra on ATV’s program “Csatt”

Lomniczi’s recent preoccupation with NGOs prompted Egon Rónai of ATV to invite him and three other NGO leaders for a conversation on a program called “Csatt.” Veronika Móra represented Ökotárs and Miklós Ligeti, Transparency International. András Székely, an economist and teacher of religion, spoke on behalf of the “Három Királyfi és Három Királylány Mozgalom” (three princes and three princesses movement). The movement’s aim is to promote a higher birthrate to produce large families. I highly recommend taking a look at the program. Most educational.

Meanwhile, we can wait to see what the Hungarian government’s next move will be to “remedy” the situation with those pesky NGOs.