After the United States presidential election I found myself in despair. I knew that my country was in store for more threats to NGOs, journalists, and minority communities than we have faced in recent memory. And I was scared about whether my colleagues and I were prepared to deal with them.
Yet I realized that we can draw lessons and inspiration from our counterparts overseas. Amid a rise in authoritarianism and xenophobia in places like Poland and Hungary, civil society activists have faced increasing threats over the past several years.
For example, just this week, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo of Poland announced new regulations to consolidate state power over NGOs. The likely result will be the de-funding or closure of some NGOs, especially those serving minority communities such as refugees, LGBT people, or those working on women’s issues. Wojciech Kaczmarczyk, the official overseeing the civil society changes, recently complained that he has “had enough of militant atheists and enthusiasts of sexual revolution appropriating the principle of equality.”
On a visit to Hungary right around the time of the U.S. election I saw NGOs under attack. The sector had already been subject to raids, “exceptional investigations,” and interrogations in 2014, which led to a shutoff of a major source of funding, leaving many NGOs hobbled. Four NGOs closed their doors in recent weeks: National Ethnic Minority Legal Defense (NEKI), Roma Press Center, Romaversitas, and the Chance for Disadvantaged Children Foundation. All four provided services to the Roma community, and It isn’t lost on NGOs that the first organizations to shut down are those that work with ethnic minorities. Following their closure, two more Roma organizations, Roma Parliament and Phralipe Independent Gypsy Organization, were evicted based on dubious claims that they had unpaid government debts. When Hungarian companies tried to take up the slack, they themselves were targeted by the government, so they backed off.
Generalist organizations like the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) have considered taking on issues that will now be left unaddressed by the departure of Roma NGOs. But the HCLU faces its own threats. At least two civil liberties organizations have discovered spy bugs, and recent idiosyncrasies with the HCLU phone system have led them to believe they are under surveillance. After callers heard their own phone conversations repeated back to them on the HCLU phone line, organization lawyers asked the state security service to investigate. They were told no investigation was necessary (and received the same response upon appealing to the National Security Committee of parliament).
The response was not surprising in light of recent statements by the Vice President of the Security Committee (who is also Vice President of the Fidesz Party) that intelligence services should investigate the activity of all NGOs because they are a “threat to the nation.”
The HCLU is not fazed by the increase in pressure; attorneys have been operating as if under siege since 2014. One told me that he explained to his 7-year-old son why police officers might be coming to his home again, worrying that his son might begin to see police presence as normal.
Despite the surveillance, the threats, and the “enemies of the state” slurs, the HCLU has continued to work—and succeed. The group has stopped taking cases to the now “reformed” constitutional court, which since 2012 has consisted only of Orban’s hand-picked judges and operates according to a new set of limiting rules. The HCLU is focusing on the district and regional courts, and winning. In addition, appeals to the European Court of Human Rights have been successful, including a recent win calling for limitations on government surveillance of private individuals to combat terrorism. Additionally—instead of focusing on the national government, where they would have to deal head-on with xenophobic nationalist policy-makers—they are spending more time traveling and engaging the public directly. They’re talking about the need to combat corruption and trying change xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes in the countryside, where they most need changing.
Seeing the success that Hungarian lawyers and human rights workers have had—even as they face government targeting, lack of public support, and attrition in their own ranks—heartens me. The outpouring of protest in Poland over the past year in response to authoritarian pressures has likewise given me hope. In the coming years I know that my community in the United States will have much to learn from the creativity and courage of these activists.
We’ll need to support each other as we face common threats against our funding, our clients, and our organizations. As our xenophobic and nationalist leaders implement strategies learned from one another, so should we.