State Department Official Calls out Hungary on Human Rights and Democracy Concerns

Last week we reported on the cool reception of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from other leaders at the United Nations. Now we turn to the recent visit of a senior U.S. official to Hungary for clues about U.S. policy toward this troublesome ally. Rob Berschinski, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, visited Hungary with the purpose, he said, of showing that “we continue to have concerns with the democratic backsliding in Hungary.”

It’s good that he is publicly criticizing Hungary’s increasing authoritarianism, and his visit signals to Hungarian officials that the U.S. government is keeping a close eye on its ally. However, his silence on Hungary’s controversial border fence is concerning, as is his “compliment” to Hungary for its chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

At the United Nations, no U.S. officials met with Orbán, and he failed to gain support for the refugee quota proposal that he offered as an alternative to the European Union’s plan. Orbán’s unpopularity at the U.N. is a sure sign that that Hungary is finally getting well-deserved scorn.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Berschinski’s message aligned with Human Rights First’s repeated calls for the United States to adopt a bold strategy to reverse Hungary’s backsliding on democracy and rule of law. He urged Hungary to revise current laws on elections and the legal status of churches so that they are in line with Hungary’s OSCE obligations and the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

Berschinski also called for the Hungarian government to end unfounded investigations into NGOs—an issue that we raised in a letter to Ambassador Colleen Bell earlier in the year. Particularly in light of the recent Constitutional Court ruling in Hungary on the investigation of Norway Grants civil society organizations, it is critical that the U.S. government continue to raise up concerns on attacks against civil society and the independent media.

However, on the refugee crisis, Berschinski deferred on taking a position on Hungary’s construction of a border fence, saying that the European Union is the appropriate forum to address this issue. Even if a regional multilateral conversation is necessary, the United States can still express its views on whether a borders-first approach is wise. The Obama Administration should encourage states throughout Europe, including Hungary, to respect the human rights of refugees and migrants and to respect their obligations to protect refugees from arbitrary detention or return to persecution.

And on September 30, the day of Berschinski’s arrival, Ambassador Colleen Bell emphasized that Hungary has a right to secure its borders. The United States should be a champion on the protection of refugees, and not resort merely to private diplomacy.

It is also troubling that Berschinski reportedly “complimented” Hungary on its current chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The Orbán government has a checkered history, as Human Rights First has documented, with officials making inaccurate statements and promoting historical revisionism. Berschinski appropriately expressed concerns about the rehabilitation and commemoration of antisemitic leaders, but the U.S. government needs to be more consistent in its messaging to hold Hungary accountable for its promise of “zero tolerance” on antisemitism.

Finally, while we’re glad that Berschinski met with Roma leaders and citizens, to call for the eradication of discriminatory housing policies and related intimidation, he missed an opportunity to tie this particular issue to the rise of Jobbik, the anti-Roma, antisemitic extremist party that exerts a significant influence on the Orbán government.

Human Rights First continues to monitor the situation in Hungary, and we’ve produced a series of reportsfact sheets, and congressional testimony showing the dangers and consequences of Hungary’s slide toward authoritarianism and extremism.

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Published on October 20, 2015

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