There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the human rights situation in Hungary. So its recent election to the United Nations Human Rights Council may seem surprising. Hungary was elected to one of two seats allocated to the region along with Croatia, with Russia failing in its bid to win a seat. 

Hungarian police stand guard in front of anti-government protesters near to a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of 1956 anti-Communist uprising in Budapest, Hungary, October 23, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

However, its election does present a good opportunity for the government to clean up its own human rights record, and for other governments to scrutinize Hungary a little more closely.  

And there’s lots to scrutinize. 

In the past six years, since the second Viktor Orban government was voted in, it has undermined checks and balances on the executive by weakening or gaining control over key public institutions. Its record has drawn criticism from the Council of Europe, European Parliament, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN independent experts on discrimination against women, migrants’ rights, and human rights defenders. The government has weakened the mandate of the Constitutional Court and packed the main media regulator with political appointees. It has put pressure on independent media outlets and civil society groups alike. 

The government has even made it a crime to be homeless. Initially, the Constitutional Court blocked the proposed law change, but the government got around this by changing the constitution to permit criminalization of homelessness and then changing the court’s mandate, so it could not rule on the constitution  itself.

Hungary has also been at the forefront of abusive responses to Europe’s refugee crisis, erecting fences to divert flows, prosecuting asylum seekers, and forcing others back to the Serbian border, including with violence. It has rejected common European Union efforts to share responsibility, and created a taxpayer-funded campaign designed to whip up hate against migrants and asylum seekers in the country. 

In its Human Rights Council “election pledge,” Hungary’s government expressed its deep commitment and dedication to strengthening and promoting human rights. Now it’s time to put those words into action, by taking important steps to improve human rights at home. Hungary’s colleagues on the Council should use their leverage to insist on concrete progress.

Let Hungary’s government, which touts its election as a “huge success,” begin at home if it really wants to show it’s serious about protecting and promoting human rights around the world.