Government’s Damaging Changes to Legal Framework Require EU Action
May 16, 2013
The Hungarian government accuses all its critics of bias, politically motivated criticism, or factual error, but the truth is simpler: there is deep concern across Europe about the state of the rule of law and human rights in Hungary today. When even your friends are worried about you, it’s time to stop denying and start listening.
Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher

(Budapest) – The systemic changes to Hungary’s legal framework introduced by the government since 2010 weaken legal checks on its authority, interfere with media freedom, and undermine human rights protections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The continuing failure of the Hungarian government to comply with recommendations by European institutions should result in concrete European Union (EU) action, including steps towards suspension of Hungary’s voting rights, Human Rights Watch said.

The 29-page report, “Wrong Direction on Rights: Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws,”analyzes the new constitution and laws and their negative effects on human rights and the rule of law. It shows how the government has largely ignored criticism from the EU and the Council of Europe and, through further constitutional changes, sought to reverse binding rulings by Hungary’s Constitutional Court upholding fundamental rights. The report finds that the changes run counter to Hungary’s legal obligations as a member of the EU and the Council of Europe.

“The legal changes introduced by Hungary’s government are eating away at the rule of law and human rights protection,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But most alarming is the government’s failure to listen to Europe’s advice and respect its own Constitutional Court.”

Since it won more than two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament in the 2010 election, the ruling Fidesz party has used this supermajority to make major changes to Hungary’s legal framework in ways that have undermined human rights protection and the rule of law. At a rapid pace and without adequate public consultation, the government has adopted and amended a new constitution and rammed through over 600 new laws.

The constitutional and other legal changes have curbed the independence of the judiciary and the administration of justice, forced nearly 300 judges into early retirement, and imposed limitations on the Constitutional Court’s ability to review laws and complaints.

The changes also have an impact on media freedom. Independent media outlets told Human Rights Watch that they engage in self-censorship as a result of unclear content regulations. The media regulator sought repeatedly to deny a broadcast license to an independent radio station before eventually bowing to successive court rulings ordering it to issue the license.  

The new constitution stripped hundreds of religious groups of their status as “churches” under domestic law. The constitution discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people by excluding them from the notion of “family,” and it restricts the rights of women and prevents people with mental disabilities from voting.

In 2012 and early 2013 the Constitutional Court ruled several provisions and laws relating to the forced early retirement of judges, the arbitrary registration process for churches with no possibility for judicial appeal, and the criminalization of homelessness. Rather than accepting those rulings, the government introduced legal changes in March 2013 that added the provisions to the constitution and curbed the power of the constitutional court to review changes to the constitution, preventing the court from striking down the measures anew.

“Instead of abiding by the Constitutional Court’s rulings, the government introduced the very same laws held unconstitutional into the constitution itself, thereby barring the court from reviewing them,” Gall said. “There is no clearer example of the Hungarian government’s contempt for the rule of law.”

The Hungarian government’s actions have brought heavy international criticism, including by the European Commission, the European Parliament, and independent expert panels at the Council of Europe, as well as by the German and United States governments. The government has dismissed these criticisms as factually incorrect or driven by political motives.  

The European Commission is considering legal enforcement action against Hungary, known as “infringement proceedings,” triggered by the March 2013 constitutional changes. The EU Court of Justice has already ruled against Hungary on forced retirement of judges. The European Parliament is set to consider a report on the legal changes as a whole.

The Liberal Group in the European Parliament has recommended that the EU initiate proceedings against Hungary under article 7 of the EU Treaty, which allows suspending voting rights if a country’s actions pose a clear risk of a breach of the common values of the EU, or if a member state is in serious breach of those values. The time has come to put article 7 action on the table, Human Rights Watch said.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission is also reviewing the March 2013 legal changes, and a committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has recommended subjecting  Hungary to Council of Europe monitoring, a procedure usually reserved for new members. If approved, Hungary would be the first EU country subject to such monitoring. Sustained pressure from the Council of Europe is vital, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Hungarian government accuses all its critics of bias, politically motivated criticism, or factual error, but the truth is simpler: there is deep concern across Europe about the state of the rule of law and human rights in Hungary today,” Gall said. “When even your friends are worried about you, it’s time to stop denying and start listening.”