24 April 2018
Mr. Viktor Orbán
1357 Budapest, Pf. 6.
Dear Prime Minister Orbán,
I am writing to you following the re-election of your party to government in Hungary. As you take up a new mandate and consider your priorities for Hungary, I would like to share with you recommendations for steps your government can take to improve the protection of human rights of everyone in Hungary.
Human Rights Watch is an international nongovernmental organization working in over 90 countries worldwide. Human Rights Watch has worked extensively on human rights in Hungary since 2011 and has engaged with authorities on a range of issues. We are aware that in the past you have not agreed with Human Rights Watch’s analysis and recommendations. Nevertheless, we hope as you commence a new term of office you will consider engaging with Human Rights Watch on Hungary’s human rights obligations.
In recent years, Hungary has been scrutinised by United Nations, European Union and Council of Europe bodies and European institutions and human rights monitors for the effect of your government’s policies on human rights and the rule of law.
As Hungary enters into a new parliamentary term under your leadership, we hope you will take the opportunity to engage constructively with those institutions to which Hungary has a long-standing record of participation and commit to discuss and address their concerns.
We encourage you in particular to use your mandate to reaffirm the importance of civil society in a democratic society; enable a media landscape conducive to a pluralistic, facts-based debate; address legal and policy shortcomings with regards to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers; and, ensure that public funds are not used to fuel xenophobia and intolerance.
There has been a troubling pattern of efforts to impede and discredit the work of civil society organizations in Hungary in recent years, particularly those that receive funding from abroad or help migrants and asylum seekers. The draft legal package referred to as “Stop Soros” would compound existing and unjustified restrictions imposed on nongovernmental organizations in 2017 and could curb or end their ability to carry out legitimate activities.
We call on you as a matter of priority to ensure that your government refrains from publicly alleging that these organizations – lawfully operating in Hungary – are engaged in illicit activities, or that they represent a threat to national security. Intimidation against employees and volunteers, seen during the electoral campaign by candidates or their supporters and in some media, should end and be replaced by a more genuinely democratic climate where everyone’s right to participate in political and public affairs, as guaranteed under international norms, is respected and protected. We encourage you to ensure that the Hungarian government respects and protects the freedoms of association, assembly and expression and urge you to participate in meaningful dialogue and constructive partnership with civil society actors, including human rights groups.
Similarly, the new Hungarian government should redouble efforts to address the ongoing uncertainty of educational institutions of international background, in particular the Central European University, whose continued operations are still in jeopardy, despite the university’s efforts to comply with 2017 legislation.
We have observed in recent years a notable decline in the protection of freedom of speech and media under your previous mandates. Newly introduced media laws, a restructured public broadcaster with questionable editorial independence and disproportionate ownership of private media by figures close to the government have contributed to a dramatically polarized media landscape. Outlets critical of your government and state institutions have faced intimidation and restrictions on accessing information and engaging with decision-makers; they had to defend themselves in front of courts for alleged defamation and libel.
As Prime Minister, you have a renewed opportunity and responsibility to uphold free expression in Hungary, ensure that citizens have access to a diversity of opinion through media pluralism, and that critical media outlets and journalists do not risk retaliation for their views. Under international law, journalists should not face threats, sanctions or charges and penalties for criticizing public figures.
Human rights of migrants and asylum seekers
The Hungarian government has faced criticism by international and regional human rights bodies, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, and is being challenged at the European Court of Human Rights for violating the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch is concerned at the continued automatic detention, solely on the grounds of immigration status, of almost all asylum seekers in substandard border “transit zones”; the summary removal of all persons detected inside Hungary after irregular entry to the external side of the border fences, sometimes violently; the arbitrarily applied restrictions on accessing the asylum procedure; and the criminalization of irregular entry. We call on you to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are treated fairly and humanely by revising, as necessary the existing legislative framework and to repeal or review the March 2017 asylum law.
In this context, we hope that the next Hungarian government will refrain from using public funds to falsely depict migrants as “threats” to national security and to the Hungarian nation’s survival, often increasing the racial prejudices prevalent in Hungarian society, and will instead engage in meaningful discussions and genuine policy making on asylum and migration management nationally and within the European Union.
Rule of law
Finally, we turn to you at this important moment to urge you to make a renewed commitment to the separation of powers and institutional checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial institutions, including by restoring the mandate and independence of the Constitutional Court without delay. We urge the Hungarian government to commit to engage constructively with international and European human rights bodies, including the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee, UN Special Procedures, and the Council of Europe expert bodies with regards to best practices and necessary steps to restore the protection of human rights and the rule of law in Hungary, and to commit to consider the recommendations addressed by these institutions to the Government of Hungary.
I hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on these important matters and would welcome an opportunity to discuss them with you in person at a convenient time.
Human Rights Watch