(Budapest) – The Hungarian government should carry out, without delay, the November 12, 2012 Constitutional Court decision that the law criminalizing homelessness is unconstitutional, Human Rights Watch said today.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Parliament on December 3 that the government plans to hold consultations in Hungary’s main cities on the issue, saying that the Constitutional Court decision is “at odds with reality on the ground,” and indicating that he may seek to change the constitution to reinstate the law.
“The Constitutional Court ruling makes clear that homeless people should be helped, not treated as criminals,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should respect the judgment of Hungary’s top court rather than undermining the rule of law.”
The law on criminalizing homelessness entered into force on April 15 and made it a criminal offense to live habitually in public spaces or to store belongings in them. Repeat offenders risked being imprisoned for up to 75 days or fined up to 150,000 Hungarian Forint (US$655). The November Constitutional Court ruling immediately voided the law.
Civil society estimates the number of homeless people living in Hungary to be 30,000, of whom approximately 8,000 are in the capital, Budapest. The prime minister insisted before Parliament on December 3 that Hungary has enough shelters to meet the needs of the country’s homeless population. But in fact, Budapest has only 5,500 available beds in public shelters, with around 4,500 in other parts of the country.
The prime minister also argued that seeking the support of major cities in Hungary for a ban was necessary to protect the rights of the majority of the population who are not homeless.
The four constitutional court judges out of 15 who dissented in the November ruling also relied on arguments that the ban was justified as a measure to protect the rights of the majority. The four dissenting judges, ruling party loyalists appointed as a result of the mandatory retirement of judges in January, also stated that homeless people engage in unwanted social behavior making them liable to sanction by society.
The failure of the government to revoke the law in accordance with the Constitutional Court decision raises serious human rights and rule of law concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
Hungary has ratified international treaties that guarantee the right to adequate housing, including the European Social Charter. In February, the UN special rapporteurs on extreme poverty and human rights and on the right to adequate housing called jointly on Hungary to revise its laws criminalizing homelessness, stating that, “Homeless persons should not be deprived of their basic rights to liberty, or to privacy, personal security and protection of the family, only because they are poor and need shelter.”
The Hungarian Ombudsman and local groups in Hungary, such as The City Belongs to Everyone, working on issues faced by the homeless, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, a leading human rights organization, have also condemned the law for penalizing the poorest in society.
“International human rights experts and Hungary’s top court have made clear that the government’s approach to homelessness jeopardizes the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in society.” Gall said. “The government should act on its human rights obligations and protect, not take away, the rights of those without housing.”