Tag Archives: United Nations

Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017

The Orbán government under fire

Viktor Orbán was named “Man of the Year” at the Economic Forum held in the Polish city of Krynica. He was chosen from a list of dignitaries, politicians, and scholars that included Pope Francis, but the devout Polish Catholics preferred the herald of hate over the messenger of love. They can be proud of themselves.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) and the strong man behind the Polish government led by Beata Szydło, and Orbán Viktor declared a “cultural counterrevolution” in the European Union. While, earlier, the former Soviet satellite countries had tried to make up for the time lost in the deadly embrace of Moscow, the Visegrád 4 countries discovered that their backwardness is in fact an asset. They have set out to spread the gospel of a better Europe across the Continent. As Orbán put it, “the European dream moved to Central Europe.” It seems that they would like to remake Europe in their own image.

As The Financial Times editorial argues, this “cultural counterrevolution” stands against the tolerance, human rights, and liberal democratic values that are the cornerstones of European culture. Their attempt to create an axis against the rest of the EU is a dangerous game and an immoral one as well because they are using the difficulties the Union is currently facing to their own selfish political ends. In addition, wittingly or unwittingly they are serving Vladimir Putin’s mission to extend Russian influence westward.

While the Visegrád 4 countries are proud of their firm stand on the refugee issue, others are horrified at the inhumane treatment of the refugees by the Hungarian authorities and at the East European countries’ unwillingness to cooperate in trying to find a solution to the problem at hand. One of these people is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who delivered a speech at a gala in The Hague on Monday:

I wish to address this short statement to Mr. Geert Wilders, his acolytes, indeed to all those like him—the populists, demagogues and political fantasists…. What Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Da’esh. All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion – living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever. Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that.

The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats. Clever cheats….

History has perhaps taught Mr. Wilders and his ilk how effectively xenophobia and bigotry can be weaponized. Communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps, with populists like them, and the extremists, as the commandants. The atmosphere will become thick with hate; at this point it can descend rapidly into colossal violence….

Do not, my friends, be led by the deceiver. It is only by pursuing the entire truth, and acting wisely, that humanity can ever survive. So draw the line and speak. Speak out and up, speak the truth and do so compassionately, speak for your children, for those you care about, for the rights of all, and be sure to say clearly: stop! We will not be bullied by you the bully, nor fooled by you the deceiver, not again, no more; because we, not you, will steer our collective fate. And we, not you, will write and sculpt this coming century. Draw the line!

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó responded promptly, accusing Zeid bin Ra’ad of “half-truths and lies” with which he tries to manipulate public opinion. “Because of these pronouncements he has become unfit to fill any position at the United Nations. He has completely ruined the reputation of the office of high commissioner for refugees.” The problem is that Zeid bin Ra’ad is the high commissioner for human rights and not refugees. Our instant diplomat still has a lot to learn.

populism2

Zsolt Bayer also noticed that this gentleman with a strange-sounding name said something unflattering about Hungary’s great prime minister and so attacked him in an article in his series “Intolerable.” After describing the horrors of the Islamic State, Bayer expressed his outrage that Zeid bin Ra’ad compared populists like Trump or Orbán to this terrorist organization. With this speech “the Jordanian prince demonstrated that, despite being a prince, he has not as much dignity as a pig, in addition to being as stupid and thick as a slop bucket.” There can be another explanation according to Bayer: “Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights of the United Nations, is a paid agent of the Islamic State. So, he is not a stupid pig but an ignominious, abject traitor, a miscreant who sold his conscience for money. By and large these are the two possibilities.”

Zeid bin Ra’ad’s speech wasn’t the end of the criticism of Hungary coming from the United Nations. Yesterday the UN held a High-Level Forum on Antisemitism where U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered a speech. She spent a considerable amount of time on Hungary as an example of a country where public outcry against anti-Semitism has borne fruit. Hungarian papers described the length of the time Power spent on Hungary as 1.5 pages out of 4. Actually, it was more than that. Of the 2,225-word speech 935 were devoted to the Hungarian situation. Here are the relevant parts of the speech:

This brings me to the third challenge I want to highlight today. We must underscore the fact that antisemitism poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the principles of pluralism, diversity, and the fundamental freedoms that we hold most dear. Time and again throughout history, we have seen that when the human rights of Jews are violated, the rights of others are not far behind. This is true in the case of individuals – as we have seen how the people who troll Jewish journalists and disseminate antisemitic memes on social media also routinely target minority groups such as immigrants and, increasingly, refugees.

It is also true for governments. Consider the case of Hungary, where in 2015, a foundation planned to build a statue honoring Balint Homan, a government minister who championed antisemitic laws in the thirties and who, in the forties, called for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, an estimated 420,000 of whom were murdered in Auschwitz and other camps. And just last month, the Hungarian government bestowed one of its highest honors on Zsolt Bayer, a virulently antisemitic columnist. These actions have occurred against a backdrop of growing antisemitism in the country, reflected in part by the rise of the extreme ethnic nationalist Jobbik party, which refers to the Holocaust as the “Holoscam.”

In addition to being profoundly alarming in and of itself, this growing antisemitism has gone hand in hand with rising xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Hungary’s prime minister has openly declared his desire “to keep Europe Christian” by barring Muslim refugees who come seeking sanctuary from mass atrocities and persecution, and he’s fanned popular fears by claiming that all terrorists in Europe are migrants. And both Homan in the thirties and forties – and Bayer in recent decades – mixed their antisemitism with the hatred of other minorities; Bayer once wrote of the Roma, “These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”

Yet from Hungary we can also draw important lessons about how to effectively push back against antisemitism – and it is with this point that I wish to conclude. The planned statue to Balint Homan was never erected. A widespread coalition of Hungarian and international organizations, faith leaders, and governments came together to signal their opposition – persuading the Hungarian government to withdraw its support. I’m proud that American civil society organizations and government officials were part of this effort – including many of you here in civil society, and including U.S. Envoy for Combatting and Monitoring Antisemitism and the U.S. Envoy for Holocaust Issues, both of whom are also here with us today. Their engagement is one of the many reasons we continue to urge other countries to create a ranking position for monitoring and combating antisemitism within their own governments. But these envoys were far from the only U.S. government officials involved in the effort; as President Obama said recently, our government made clear that the statue was, “not a side note to our relations with Hungary – this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States.”

And while the Hungarian government may have given an award to Zsolt Bayer, organizations, civil society groups, and governments have rightly expressed their disapproval and dismay. So have more than 100 individuals who have received honors over the years from the Hungarian government – including some of the country’s most renowned economists, historians, politicians, poets, filmmakers, and scientists – who have returned their awards in protest.

Let me close, then, by reading from a few of the statements that they gave upon returning their awards.

Former parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities Jenő Kaltenbach wrote: “With this you rendered dishonorable and unacceptable both the award itself and the one bestowing it. How you hold yourself to account for this is your business. How I choose to live with this is mine.”

András Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote: “I value diversity, not destructive extremism. As a civil activist I received the award, and as a responsible Hungarian citizen I am returning it.”

City mayor Tamás Wittinghof simply posted a picture of his award on Facebook with the caption: “Now we say goodbye to each other.”

And Hungarian-American Katrina Lantos Swett, who many of you know, who had received her award for setting up an organization in Budapest to defend minority rights, said she could not share an award with a man who “deserves censure, not honor, for his loathsome writings and speech.” Katrina named the rights organization she founded after her father – Tom Lantos – the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the U.S. Congress, and a lifelong champion of human rights.

These efforts – which I find very moving – show us that when governments are willing to stand up and speak out in the face of antisemitism, rather than stand by, even hatemongers take notice. And when civil society groups and citizens partner in these efforts – and make clear that such hatred poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the pluralism, rights, and freedoms that we hold as sacred – these efforts are exceptionally more effective.

Imagine, for just a moment, how much violence – against Jews and other minorities – might have been avoided if similar efforts had been undertaken in the past. Imagine all of the hatred and suffering that we can prevent if we come together in such an effort today.

The last time I checked, no government response had been posted. A couple of independent media outlets reported on the speech, which elicited mostly hateful comments. Some commenters believe that Power is totally ignorant of what’s going on in Hungary despite her flawless description of the Hóman and Bayer cases. Others think that Jews and/or members of the domestic opposition are behind Power. Some go as far as to say that Jewish complaints usually follow a brilliant Hungarian move, so they should rejoice. And, of course, there are those who think that the United States has no business whatsoever poking its nose into Hungary’s affairs.

I assume Szijjártó will issue an official response shortly, and I can hardly wait for Bayer’s comments.

September 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.

Recommendations

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

Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó at the United Nations

Viktor Orbán didn’t skip his Friday morning radio interview despite the fact that it was only a few hours earlier that he stepped off the airplane that brought him back from a trip to New York and Washington. A large part of the interview was a rehash of his well-known opposition to the immigration of people from an alien culture, but the careful listener could detect an admission of failure in convincing the world about the correctness of his position. It turned out that the only European country that supported Orbán’s proposal for worldwide compulsory quotas for the asylum seekers was Malta. It had been clear since the Brussels summit that this idea was dead in the water, and Orbán’s promoting it in New York was a waste of time.

We do know that Viktor Orbán met Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt, who is one of the favorite politicians of the Hungarian prime minister. During el-Sisi’s state visit to Budapest during the summer Orbán praised him as the savior of Egypt and compared him to Admiral Miklós Horthy, also a military man, who saved his country in a time of peril. According to a government press release, Orbán will make an official state visit to Cairo soon. Otherwise, we know that he met Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Annette Lantos, widow of the late Congressman Tom Lantos. The meeting with Lauder was scheduled on the very day that in Hungary the two officials responsible for the sale of the Sukoró property on which Lauder and other businessmen were planning to erect a casino and hotel complex received tough jail sentences in a rigged trial. I wonder whether Lauder was aware of the verdict at the time of the conversation.

We know more about Péter Szijjártó’s schedule. He had an opportunity to talk to Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and Jeffrey D. Feltman, under-secretary-general for political affairs. Otherwise he had meetings with assorted foreign ministers of marginally important countries: Gilbert Saboya of Andorra, Taieb Beccouche of Tunisia, Erlan Abdyldaev of Kyrgysztan, and Charles Koffi Diby of the Ivory Coast. In addition, he met with Peter M. Boehm, associate deputy minister of foreign affairs of Canada, who was misidentified by the Hungarian foreign ministry as the foreign minister of the country.

Szijjártó’s conversation with Deputy-Secretary-General Jan Eliasson was, it seems, mostly a comparison of the immigrants currently arriving in Europe and the Hungarians who illegally crossed into Austria and to a lesser extent Yugoslavia. I assume that the comparison was made by Eliasson and was then hotly debated by Péter Szijjártó. As Népszabadság‘s sarcastically commented, “Hungarian immigrants are different from any other immigrants.”

Péter Szijjártó with Deputy-General Secretary Jan Eliasson / MTI/UN/Eskinder Debebe

Péter Szijjártó with Deputy-General Secretary Jan Eliasson / MTI/UN Photo: Eskinder Debebe

Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at a meeting organized specifically for a discussion of the refugee crisis where, in addition to his suggestion for world quotas, he warned the world against anti-Muslim sentiment. One can only marvel at this man’s brazenness. He has the gall to stand up and utter such words when ever since January he has done nothing but incite his people against the Muslim “invaders” who in his opinion as of this morning “more closely resemble members of an army than asylum seekers.” But he knows no shame.

Péter Szijjártó also delivered a speech in English at the open discussion of the United Nation’s Security Council. The message of his speech was that without Russia no international problems can be solved. He stated that the transatlantic community–the European Union and the United States–must rethink their relations to Russia. The Syrian civil war cannot be solved without Moscow’s participation. In order to further emphasize Hungary’s excellent relations with Russia, Szijjártó began his speech in Russian as a gesture to the Russians who are chairing the Security Council this month. Here we are in the middle of a serious conflict between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama over Putin’s involvement in Syria, and Hungary, a member of NATO, openly sides with Russia.

In earlier posts I talked about the uncivilized manner in which Szijjártó talks to other politicians. The language being used by this young, inexperienced man is unheard of in diplomacy. But he does it at the command of the prime minister. You may recall that as early as 2010 Viktor Orbán told Hungarian diplomats who gathered for “instructions” from the prime minister in Budapest that they will have to counter every time there is any criticism of Hungary. This year he made himself even clearer. The stronger the criticism the harsher the response of Hungarian diplomats must be.

In light of Orbán’s stated policy of lashing out with harsh rebukes at critics of Hungary, the following exchange in today’s interview was, for those of us who have developed a warped sense of humor in order to survive this regime, amusing. The reporter asked Orbán whether his suggestion of worldwide quotas was intended to force the developed countries to reveal their true feelings about accepting refugees. Orbán piously answered: “This would be an impolite formulation, we are not supposed to speak like that at international meetings, we choose a different approach.” But since he was no longer at an international meeting, he immediately launched into a tirade against the prime minister of Croatia.

After giving a false picture of the excellent relationship between Croatia and Hungary during their 800-year common destiny, he admitted that “‘what is happening today” is injurious to both. Until now he hasn’t said anything to the Croatian prime minister, but now he must say something that might not be diplomatic or polite. He has to be forthright because “our own people will pay the price” for what the Croatian prime minister is doing. “We cannot look upon the words of the Croatian prime minister as the voice of the Croatian people. The Croatian prime minister and his party are part of the Socialist Internationale. The parties of the Socialist Internationale support immigration … Their leaders follow the instructions of the Socialist Internationale…. Therefore, I ask Hungarians to keep in mind when they hear the Croatian prime minister that they aren’t hearing the voice of the Croatian people but the emissary of the Socialist Internationale whose job it is to attack Hungary.”

By now neighboring countries’ politicians have been insulted by Szijjártó, and today Orbán joined the fray by hurling insults at the Croatian prime minister. Where will all this lead? Unfortunately, the Hungarian people will pay dearly for Orbán’s irresponsible foreign policy. Even if Orbán disappeared today, it would take years to undo the damage both at home and abroad.

High Commissioner for Human Rights: Hungary violating international law

GENEVA (17 September 2015) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on Thursday said he was appalled at the recent actions and attitudes displayed by the Hungarian Government and authorities in relation to refugees and migrants, and also urged European institutions to resolve their impasse and take firm action to respond to the crisis in Hungary and elsewhere.

“The images of women and young children being assaulted with tear gas and water cannons at Hungary’s border with Serbia were truly shocking,” Zeid said. “I am appalled at the callous, and in some cases illegal, actions of the Hungarian authorities in recent days, which include denying entry to, arresting, summarily rejecting and returning refugees, using disproportionate force on migrants and refugees, as well as reportedly assaulting journalists and seizing video documentation. Some of these actions amount to clear violations of international law.* ”    

The Hungarian Government has just finished building a fence on its border to Serbia and closed the border crossings, while a new law criminalizing irregular entry into Hungary came into effect on Tuesday. Hungary has reportedly already begun returning refugees to Serbia, following very summary proceedings. The Government is also talking of building more fences along its other borders with Romania and Croatia.

On Monday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defended the measures by saying that they concerned “defending European lifestyles,” contrasting this with Islam. High Commissioner Zeid deplored the xenophobic and anti-Muslim views that appear to lie at the heart of current Hungarian Government policy, and which were reflected in a blatantly xenophobic Government poster campaign earlier in the year.

“The package of measures brought in overnight between Monday to Tuesday is incompatible with the human rights commitments binding on Hungary,” the High Commissioner said. “This is an entirely unacceptable infringement of the human rights of refugees and migrants. Seeking asylum is not a crime, and neither is entering a country irregularly.”

“Many have made harrowing sea journeys to avoid other border fences,” Zeid added.

“They have put themselves at the mercy of smugglers because they had no other option to escape from war and misery. Other avenues for entry – including resettlement programs as well as regular migration channels – were simply not there. I am extremely concerned at the repeated failures of the European Union to agree firm and principled action to respond to the crisis in Hungary and elsewhere. Current events highlight the urgent need for bolder and more human-rights driven migration and asylum policies in Europe.”

*Relevant international treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture.

Hate campaign against immigrants, rev. 2.0

The Hungarian government simply refuses to stop its campaign against immigrants despite the obvious failure of its national consultation effort. At the end of April the government announced its intention to spend 2 billion forints on poisoning the souls of Hungarians by mailing them a questionnaire with leading questions designed to incite hatred and fear of possible immigrants and refugees. When the commissioner for refugee affairs of the United Nations received a translation of the questionnaire, she could only gasp. Yes, she had heard about it and knew that it was bad, but when she actually read the questions she was shocked and “deeply concerned by the way the government increasingly vilifies people who have fled from war zones like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and who desperately need safety and protection in Hungary.” Yes, this government vilifies people who would need Hungary’s help, and it is not ashamed to show its true face to the world. It may even be proud of its tough “Hungarians first and only” stance. Viktor Orbán certainly doesn’t see anything wrong with his government’s behavior. He is convinced that his is the right way and that it is a position that Europe as a whole should follow.

Most observers think that Viktor Orbán is spreading “the bad name” of Hungary and Hungarians, some of whom are utterly ashamed of their prime minister, even of the fact that they belong to the same nation as he does. What will the world think of them? Well, some foreigners have already asked: how on earth could you elect such a man to be your prime minister? Or, how could you give him that much power? Especially the second time around? Or, why are you quiet, why don’t you send him somewhere where he will be far away from power and politics?

Well, the fact is that the vast majority of Hungarians didn’t fall for Orbán’s xenophobic campaign. That’s the good news. Eight million questionnaires were sent out, and thus far only 200,000 have been returned. Among them, I’d wager to say, given the mood of the country, several probably included unprintable remarks about Viktor Orbán and his government. At any event, a 2.5% response rate–and that by government calculations–is dismal, pretty close to what direct marketers can expect. To improve the stats, Hungarians can now answer the questionnaire online, and they will have two more months to do so. By the end it is possible that a much larger response figure will be announced, the accuracy of which, of course, we will not be able to ascertain. Nor will we know how they answered the questions.

Despite the poor response thus far, it looks as if the officials working in the prime minister’s office still think that they might be able to squeeze some political benefit out of this shameful topic. They switched into campaign mode to sell the original idea more aggressively. Perhaps their famous “communication” wasn’t effective enough, and if they turn up the volume a bit they will shift the mood of indifference to the anti-immigrant propaganda into one of frightened acceptance. They plan to use stronger language and better methods to increase Hungarians’ awareness of the dangers of immigrant hordes. They already tried hammering home the slogan that “Hungary should remain Hungarian,” but it didn’t have the desired effect. What about appealing to fears that immigrants will take the job of the natives? It looks as if this is the new scare tactic of the government.

During a press conference Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations, announced that this new “information campaign” will also include plastering the country with anti-immigration posters. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian media to get hold of a photo of one such poster from a print shop that got the job of producing 333 large billboards with the message: “If you come to Hungary you cannot take away the jobs of Hungarians!” At first blush, this poster looks like a joke since would-be immigrants couldn’t possibly understand the text. The message is, I assume, directed at the locals. The population should realize that if Hungary accepts 700 or so political refugees their jobs might be in jeopardy. They should therefore band together and support the prime minister to prevent these alien, job-grabbing people from settling in Magyarorszag.

"If you come to Hungary you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!"

“If you come to Hungary you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!”

Yes, the hate campaign is on. There are two more posters  in the works, and Index learned that the government in this new campaign is concentrating on areas along the southern border where specific anti-immigrant messages will be sent. I’m not sure what they expect. Perhaps that the local inhabitants will chase the immigrants away or round them up to be taken into police custody. But if I were the government, I would be careful. All that hate might be translated into action, and one day a “true believer” might just shoot some of the people crossing the border in the dead of night, rationalizing his foul deed by saying that these people were either political or economic terrorists who had to be stopped, that–just like the prime minister–he was protecting the country he loves.

The plight of the homeless in Hungary

Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time on the plight of the homeless in Hungary. The United Nations estimates the number of homeless people in Hungary at 30-35,000, of whom about 8,000 are in Budapest. Some of them live in homeless shelters; others, afraid of being robbed, refuse to go there. In any case, there are only about 5,500 places, which is not enough. Some of those counted as homeless managed to build primitive huts in the mountains in Buda.

It was clear from the start that this government was not going to try to find a humane solution to a growing problem. Instead, its goal was to hide the homeless from sight.  Surely, they are not good for tourism. So, let’s expel them by force of law from the most frequented places.

István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, was one of the first who decided “to solve” this problem. The Fidesz majority on the City Council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Some people in the central government liked this idea so much that they proposed a law that extended the ban to the whole country. Offenders could have been jailed or fined up to $650. Fining people who can barely keep body and soul together is naturally a ludicrous idea. Punishing somebody with a jail sentence because he has no shelter over his head is inhumane.

Last November the Constitutional Court found this law unconstitutional. (Today such a verdict would be unimaginable. By now the overwhelming majority of the judges were nominated by the government and voted in by Parliament with a two-thirds Fidesz majority.) That something is found unconstitutional never bothered the Orbán government, which considers itself the paragon of democratic virtue. Since due to pressure from the European Union the Hungarian government had to change some sections of the new constitution anyway, they smuggled in an entirely new provision that allowed municipalities to declare living in public places illegal “in order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values.”  Both the European Parliament and the United Nations condemned the law.

Kristina Jovanovski wrote a long article about the plight of the homeless in Hungary for Al Jazeera and interviewed Magdalena Sepulveda, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who told her that Hungary wasn’t the only country that bans behavior linked to homelessness, but “what makes Hungary stand out … is that such a law has been put into the country’s constitution.”

So, let’s see what the new law says. The law decrees it a misdemeanor if a homeless person frequents places designated as “world heritage” sites. In Budapest this is quite an extensive area For example, the whole Andrássy út, the region around the Gellért Hotel in Buda, the castle area, the area around the Chain Bridge, the Gellért Mountain, the Royal Castle, Szabadság tér, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Parliament building, and the buildings on the Pest side of the Danube all the way to the Petőfi Bridge.

It is unlikely that the law will apply only to “world heritage sites” for long. In Budapest the mayor of Budapest has the right to designate any area taboo that he feels needs such protection. Moreover, the district mayors can request additional sites, which István Tarlós must grant. Those homeless people who are caught in the forbidden parts of the city can be forced to perform public work. If the person refuses, he will be fined 300,000 forints or $1,300. If the authorities catch him twice within half a year, the person will be automatically jailed. Moreover, as the result of a last-minute amendment, the law became even more punitive. Building a hut in some far-away wooded area situated either on public or on private land without permission is also considered to be a misdemeanor.

Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP), a member of the parliamentary committee on human rights, released a communiqué in which she calls attention to some provisions of the law that at first glance might not be obvious to everyone. In the areas designated as “world heritage” sites, a homeless person doesn’t have to do anything in the least criminal. It would be enough if someone who looked like a homeless person walked along peacefully, for example, on Andrássy út.  These sites are now declared to be “homeless-free zones.”

In the future if this fellow is cut his hut will be destroyed and he thrown to jail

In the future, if this fellow is caught his hut will be destroyed and he will be thrown in jail

Kristina Jovanovski got in touch with a government official who explained that the law was adopted “to enable local governments to handle the issue of homelessness, and so to assure order in public spaces and increased public safety.” Furthermore, the government spokesman admitted that permitting the homeless in public spaces “poses problems from a cultural point of view when it comes to the … accessibility of certain public areas, including areas frequented by a large number of people and also in terms of the protection of historical buildings.”

So, this is where we stand now. A dictate on how to handle the homeless is part of the Hungarian constitution. One would think that a democratic country’s constitution would be designed to defend the rights of its citizens and not contain punitive measures against certain segments of the population. But, of course, Hungary is straying farther and farther from democratic principles.

Soon enough the constitution will be a motley assortment of bits and pieces of legislation. Control of utility prices will also be included in the sacred Basic Law of Viktor Orbán. This is the constitution that Viktor Szigetvári and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt 2014-PM want to “improve.” No, this constitution must be thrown into the garbage as soon as this government is gone.