UN Human Rights Body Urged to Respond to Hungary’s Assault on NGOs

NEW YORK—The Open Society Justice Initiative is urging the UN Human Rights Committee to respond to the Hungarian government’s efforts to “stifle and eliminate critical voices” through its intensifying campaign against independent civil society groups.

In a submission to the Geneva-based committee, the Justice Initiative says that a Hungarian government smear campaign and new legislative restrictions “threaten not only individual civil society organizations but civil society as a whole and, as a consequence, democracy and the rule of law.”

The 19-page document has been presented to the Human Rights Committee ahead of a scheduled public review of the Hungarian government’s record on supporting civil and political rights, currently scheduled for March 19 and 20.

The committee, comprised of 18 international human rights experts, reviews and makes recommendations on national compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Hungary ratified in 1974.

This year, the public review process is taking place as the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban steps up a campaign against civil society groups, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for April.    

Hungary’s parliament is currently moving to approve a new set of legal restrictions that specifically target nongovernmental groups working with migrants and refugees. Last year, the parliament approved burdensome financial reporting requirements on civil society groups receiving more than €24,000 annually in international funding support (Act LXXVII/2017).

The Justice Initiative’s submission—one of a number presented by civil society groups—cites Hungary’s obligation under Article 22 of the Covenant, which protects freedom of association, and says Hungary should be asked to explain its rationale for imposing restrictions on civil society groups.

It notes that civil society has “played a vital role, for example, in justice sector reform, environmental protection, awareness and education, and humanitarian relief—as well as promoting open spaces for debate and exchange.”

The submission urges the committee to recommend that Hungary should:

  • repeal Act LXXVI of 2017 on transparency of organizations receiving foreign funds because it is unnecessary to advance a legitimate interest, in light of existing reporting and registration requirements, and imposes disproportionate sanctions;
  • withdraw the package of anti-NGO legislation currently before parliament; and
  • stop promoting smear campaigns that delegitimize and undermine the crucial role that civil society organizations play in supporting democracy and the rule of law.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, said: “During its upcoming review, the United Nations Human Rights Committee should remind Hungary that civil society plays a vital role in an open society. Actual and pending laws that unduly restrict the ability of NGOs to function should be repealed or modified.”  

In a sign of its concern over its international reputation, Hungary successfully sought election in November 2016 to the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, which conducts broader review of all UN member states’ rights records through its Universal Periodic Review process. During Hungary’s last review by the council, in May 2016, several countries highlighted concerns over the deteriorating climate for civil society groups in Hungary.