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Will the US Speak Out on Hungary’s Rights Crisis?

Pompeo Visit Should Address Budapest’s Assault on Democratic Institutions

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addresses supporters after the announcement of partial results of the parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary, April 8, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

When he visits Hungary next week, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo should raise the alarm in light of Hungary’s deteriorating human rights situation.

Instead of sending a message of business as usual, he should make clear that Hungary’s backsliding on human rights has implications for its relations with the US.

Undermining rule of law, assaulting independent civil society, and deflecting constructive criticism has become a trademark for the Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Courts and public institutions are hijacked, critical and opposition voices are silenced, and most media outlets under the control of the state or pro-government owners.

The 2018 US State Department Human Rights Report on Hungary identifies such concerns. But documenting concerns on paper is not enough – it’s time for action before things deteriorate further, and Pompeo’s visit is an opportunity to raise a red flag that the United States should not pass up.

Since December, the Orban government has: fast-tracked the so-called “slave law” through parliament – a law that could force employees to work longer hours and have pay docked if they refuse; created a new administrative court system through which it is likely to have strong influence over judicial appointments, who will then be hearing claims against the same government authorities who appointed them; and, most recently, side-stepped competition and monopoly laws to enable the merger of more than 400 media outlets into one media conglomerate loyal to the government.

Add to that Orban’s friendly relationship with Putin and his government’s hostile stance on Ukraine, a key US ally in Eastern Europe – both of which should cause concern for the US administration – and a deeply troubling picture emerges.

This authoritarian rise in Hungary directly affects US interests. The most recent example is the forced closure of the Central European University’s (CEU) Budapest operations – which the Trump administration worked hard to forestall. Another example is Hungary’s rejection of the US request to extradite an alleged Russian arms dealer. Instead of complying, the Orban government sent him back to Russia.

Unless Pompeo chooses to speak up, his visit is likely to reinforce Hungary’s hardline policies, further silence Orban’s critics, and undermine US interests.

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