Civil society under attack in Hungary

By Gerry Gable

This article has been contributed by Amnesty International.

The Hungarian government has proposed a set of laws that if adopted will have a devastating and chilling effect on civil society.

The legislative package is part of a wider crackdown on human rights and civil society organisations in Hungary, which have been under attack for several years. It seeks to punish the legitimate work of civil society groups that defend human rights, provide legal and social services, and offer support to people seeking international protection.

The government’s goal is simple and clear: to silence independent and openly critical NGOs. These include organisations such as Amnesty International Hungary, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Julia Ivan, director of Amnesty International Hungary, has said: “The proposed laws threaten the very existence of organisations doing crucial work in Hungary”.

Over the past few years, Hungary has been severely restricting access to the country for refugees and asylum-seekers and the government has carried out smear campaigns against NGOs and civil society groups. In 2015 Hungarian riot police used tear gas and water cannons on migrants who tried to break through a razor wire fence.

These laws will create a climate of fear and suspicion

If the new legislation is adopted, the government will be able to control and restrict the activities of independent human rights organisations in Hungary.

The legislative package tabled in Parliament on 13 February, the so-called “Stop Soros” laws, would require NGOs that the government deems to be “supporting migration” to obtain national security clearance and government permit to carry out any functions. This would include work such as campaigning, “influencing courts”, preparing information materials, organising networks and recruiting volunteers with the goal of sponsoring, organising or otherwise supporting the entry and stay of people seeking international protection. The laws would also require organisations to pay a tax of 25% of any foreign funding aimed at “supporting migration”.

Failure to meet these absurd requirements could lead to exorbitant fines, bankruptcy, and the dissolving of the NGOs targeted.

The government has presented these laws in the context of its wider anti-immigration campaign. In reality, these proposals have nothing to do with protecting national security or borders. They are a clear attempt to crush those working to assist people in need and to silence those who dare to raise their voices.

The actions by the Hungarian government are disturbing and unjustified. Again and again the authorities have crossed red lines but this has not remained unseen.

The defenders of rights and freedoms in Hungary are not alone, and an attack on them means an attack on all those that dare to speak out and protect others.

More than 250 organisations and platforms across the world have signed a solidarity letter stating their grave concern over the proposed laws in Hungary, and showing their support to NGOs doing crucial work and whose very existence is at risk. With one voice, civil society organisations from around the world are urging the authorities to stop the crackdown on human rights defenders.

What happens if the laws are adopted?

The law states that the authorities can “identify” NGOs which it deems are “supporting migration”. The wording is vague and open to interpretation, which gives the authorities the opportunity to target, and possibly close down, a wide range of organisations.

  1. According to the proposed laws, the NGOs identified would need to get a permission from the Minister of Interior in order to continue their basic functions, including campaigning, advocacy, preparing information materials, organising networks and recruiting volunteers.
  2. The Minister of the Interior would then involve national security services for security clearance. This procedure may take up to nine months.
  3. The law would also require organisations to pay a tax of 25 per cent of any foreign funding aimed at “supporting migration”. If they refuse or are unable to pay, this could lead to high fines, deletion of the tax number, bankruptcy, and the dissolving of the organisation.

This set of bills must be stopped

Amnesty International calls on Hungarian lawmakers to withdraw or reject the proposed laws as they are in clear violation of Hungary’s obligations under regional and international human rights law. EU leaders must also take concrete action to stop this assault on civil society in Hungary.