U.N. Special Rapporteur Says Hungary Has “Weakened” Democracy

By Timothy Meyers

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, issued a damning assessment of  Hungary’s treatment of human rights defenders and civil society organizations, concluding that the Orbán government has aimed to curtail their autonomy.

“Human rights defenders who criticize the Government or raise human rights concerns are quickly intimidated and portrayed as ‘political’ or ‘foreign agents,’” noted Forst. “They face enormous pressure through public criticism, stigmatization in the media, unwarranted inspections and reduction of state funding.”

These conclusions echo concerns we’ve been expressing since the Orbán government began to implement legislation diminishing constitutional checks-and-balances. In 2014, we published a major paper emphasizing its attacks on civil society, the media, and anti-corruption efforts.

We welcome Forst’s end-of-mission statement, and we anticipate that his upcoming report will further bolster ongoing efforts to expose how unwarranted restrictions on civil society organizations have constrained advocacy on human rights and the rule of law.

Forst observes that since 2011 more than a thousand laws have been rushed through parliament, without substantial debate or “meaningful consultation” with civil society actors. His findings align closely with the statements of the Obama Administration over the past several months. In late 2015, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, Colleen Bell, expressed concerns over corruption and the continued stigmatization of civil society organizations.

The most notorious case of overreach against civil society took place in 2014, when the government said, without evidence, that two nonprofits, Ökotárs Foundation and DemNet, were “activists financed from abroad.” Forst adds that during his site visit, government officials admitted the investigation was “political.”

Government interference has degraded the independence and efficacy of civil society in Hungary. This matters for the future of the country, and for its ability to be a good partner to the United States and other E.U. countries. The United States should continue to communicate its concerns to the Hungarian government and bolster funding for human rights activists and civil society organizations there.

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Published on February 23, 2016

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