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Debating Rule of Law in Hungary: Civil Society vs. Government Perspective

09 October 2018

Márta Pardavi, Co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), and András Kocsis, Ambassador of Hungary to the Netherlands, spoke in a panel discussion at Leiden University Law School on 27 September 2018. Rick Lawson, Professor of European Law at Leiden University and NHC Committee Member, organized the panel discussion on “Rule of Law in Europe and Hungary.” Rule of law in Hungary has been a topic of international focus due to the recent European Parliament vote to trigger Article 7 Sanction procedures against Hungary for eroding democracy and failing to uphold fundamental European values. NHC Director Pepijn Gerrits, who attended the panel discussion, recently addressed this topic on Dutch radio.

Panel discussion at University of Leiden Law School with Márta Pardavi and Ambassador András Kocsis

Debate on the rule of law in Hungary has been universally biased, says Ambassador Kocsis

Ambassador Kocsis began the panel discussion by stating that debate on the rule of law in Hungary has been universally biased. As such, he was thankful for the opportunity to address “the other side of the coin.” Indeed, Kocsis was so disparaging about recent debate on the rule of law in Hungary that he referred to the recent Article 7 vote in the European Parliament as “acts of political theatre,” alluding that “MEPs (Members of European Parliament) might not be in their right minds.” Discussing the definition of the rule of law, the Ambassador outlined four key features of the concept: accountability, just legislation, open government and accessible and impartial resolution mechanisms. Hungary, he argued, is a country in which the four pillars of rule of law are upheld and accusations suggesting otherwise are both “patronizing and condescending.”

Ambassador Kocsis strongly denied reports of media bias and government attempts to limit the work of NGOs within Hungarian civil society. He stressed that Hungary’s government, currently led by Viktor Orbán, has consulted the Hungarian people before every major decision and that, as such, legislation passed by the government reflects the will of the people. Addressing recent and controversial NGO legislation passed by the Hungarian government, Kocsis argued that the law – which requires NGOs receiving more than €22,000 of foreign funding to register as foreign funded organizations – aims to increase transparency and does not affect the ability of NGOs to carry out their work. The Ambassador pointed to the existence of 60,000 civil society organizations in Hungary to illustrate his point and noted that the legislation differs minimally from other EU member states. Urging “caution when criticiz(ing) each other’s systems,” the Ambassador’s message seemed to be that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Márta Pardavi and Ambassador András Kocsis

“Stark and alarming differences” between Ambassador Kocsis’ account of rule of law and the reality in Hungary

Pardavi, like Kocsis, welcomed the opportunity to debate the rule of law in Hungary and described the panel discussion as an “exceptional opportunity” for dialogue between two parts of Hungarian society that rarely get to meet. However, Pardavi strenuously rejected Ambassador Kocsis’ portrayal of the rule of law in Hungary. The very fact that dialogue between civil society and the Hungarian government is so exceptional, she argued, reflects the general atmosphere in the country; a context in which voices critical of the government and its legislation are subdued and stigmatized as a threat to national security. Pardavi argued that there exists “stark and alarming differences” between the legal order described by Ambassador Kocsis in his speech and the realities of practice on the ground in Hungary. The recent actions taken by the EU parliament are not, as stipulated by Ambassador Kocsis, acts of “political theatre” but rather a reminder of how serious the situation in Hungary has become. Pardavi clarified that the controversial NGO legislation sends a “clear and chilling message” to civil society;  name that involvement in some areas of policy – notably migration – will not be tolerated and will be met with punitive attitude from the government and its supporters.

NGOs cannot possibly function at full capacity in an environment in which they could be prosecuted for proving lawful legal advice to refugees and asylum seekers.” – said Márta Pardavi

To illustrate this point Pardavi highlighted recent legislation, passed into law in June, which criminalizes work seen as encouraging migration to the country. Contrary to Kocsis’ claims, Pardavi argued that such legislation does affect the ability of NGOs to carry out their work. NGOs cannot possibly function at full capacity in an environment in which they could be prosecuted for proving lawful legal advice to refugees and asylum seekers protected under international law. Pardavi noted that, contrary to Ambassador Kocsis’ claims, Hungary is alone among EU member states in implementing legislation that so clearly restrict NGOs’ freedom of expression and right to good reputation. Continuing her rebuttal of Kocsis’ assertion – that the rule of law is upheld in Hungary – Pardavi noted that hostility towards NGOs and broader civil society is not limited to legislative actions alone. NGOs face concerted campaigns of media bias in Hungary and human rights lawyers and defenders, notably those working in the field of migration, face intimidation and outright hostility. Indeed, Open Society Foundation, an international civil society network, has announced that, in response to the increasingly repressive political and legal atmosphere in Hungary, they will be moving their international operations in Hungary from Budapest to Berlin.

Ambassador Kocsis points to a broad ideological conflict between the EU and Hungary

According to Ambassador Kocsis, recent disagreements between Hungary and the EU stem from a broad ideological conflict between liberal democracy, in the EU, and Christian democracy, in Hungary. Kocsis argued that the EU’s liberal democratic states, in which the rights of the individual are seen as more important than the interests of the community, have failed to acknowledge Hungary’s unique Judeo-Christian heritage and its right to place the interests of the community ahead of the rights of the individual. This ideological battle, he argued, is played out most clearly in the domain of migration. Kocsis claimed that migration and integration have failed. The government, he argued, has “both a right and a duty” to “protect” Hungary’s Judeo-Christian tradition and history from mass migration. To “keep Hungary as a Hungarian State.” Kocsis argued that in pursuing anti-migration legislation, the Hungarian government is only reflecting the will of the Hungarian people and acting to protect Hungarian family life.

Pardavi however stressed that the actions of the Hungarian government do not reflect the will of the Hungarian people. Many Hungarians, Pardavi argued, are “proud of being European and of (their) right and duty to protect fundamental rights.” Pardavi highlighted the importance of defending Europe’s fundamental values and argued that the Hungarian government should not be allowed to cast their xenophobic and politically motivated actions as being reflective of the will of the Hungarian people. Pardavi concluded her address by calling on European citizens to stand up for the type of democracy they want to live in – a democracy in which there is vibrant free speech and in which diversity is seen as a strength and not a weakness.

The NHC Point of View

The NHC thanks both Márta Pardavi and Ambassador Kocsis for their willingness to contribute to open dialogue between the Hungarian government and civil society organizations from within the country. It notes with some dismay— although not necessarily surprise—that the Ambassador’s comments mirror, nearly verbatim, the argument put forward by several high profile figures from the Hungarian government. The position taken by the Ambassador and his government is one that patently denies the reality of the situation in Hungary. Indeed, the Hungarian Embassy’s own piece on the panel discussion fails to refer Pardavi’s concerns and is reflective of the government’s attempts to drown out critical voices from civil society. Rule of law in the country, as was highlighted by Pardavi, has been seriously undermined and civil society has been targeted by government legislation, media bias and outright intimidation. The NHC firmly believes in the importance of a strong civil society in safeguarding human rights, preventing abuse of power and promoting democratic tolerance and participation.