27 September 2019
Dear Prime Minister,
First, let us acknowledge the progress that Finland has achieved regarding rule of law since it has taken over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) on the 1st of July 2019. Particularly we would like to express our gratitude to the Finnish Presidency for bolstering meaningful dialogues in the Council around the Article 7 (1) proceeding regards to Hungary. We believe that it is imperative that this dialogue continues, and the Council properly examines the reasoned proposal of the European Parliament on its own merit. We believe that your meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the 30th September 2019 provides for an opportunity to continue a friendly dialogue on a bilateral level. Ahead of the meeting we would like to draw your attention to four recent developments that we believe are major threats to rule of law and human rights in Hungary.
We would respectfully call upon you to address these issues during your meeting with the Prime Minister of Hungary and at the press conference afterwards. Given Finland’s longstanding and vocal support for human rights, as reaffirmed in your Presidency’s and Government’s programs, we trust that you will also use this opportunity to show support for those actors that are fighting for rule of law, human rights and the European values in Hungary, in particular the judges and civil society organizations that have been targeted by the propaganda media and smear campaigns.
We would particularly encourage you to raise concerns on the following alarming developments:
1. Further erosion of the independence of the judiciary
„Checks and balances, which are crucial to ensuring judicial independence, have been further weakened within the ordinary court system” – just one of the striking findings of the European Commission about the deteriorating independence of Hungarian courts. The ongoing conflict between the National Judicial Office (NJO) that has wide-range powers over court administration (recruitment and promotion of judges, management of the judiciary’s budget etc.) and the National Judicial Council (NJC) that serves as an oversight body over the NJO and the NJO President has further escalated in 2019 to an extent that threatens the independence of the judiciary in Hungary. The NJC and the European Association of Judges which carried out a fact-finding mission to Hungary in April 2019 both found that the NJO President violated laws on judicial appointments and obstructed the NJC’s supervisory work by denying it access to documents and not cooperating with it. In addition, government-aligned media has singled out individual judges who were publicly criticizing the unlawful measures taken by the NJO President and engaged in full-fledged smearing campaigns against them.
As a first step, the full supervision of the NJO President should be reinstated immediately. In addition, the Government should refrain from any interference that would further erode the independence of the judiciary and ensure that judges are not subjected to political interference and harassment.
2. Possible reinstatement of the administrative court system
Even though the Parliament adopted the law on the postponement of the heavily criticized laws on the administrative courts in July 2019, the Fundamental Law of Hungary remains unchanged and still obliges the state to establish administrative courts in the future. For this reason, the Government is obliged by law to establish these courts, otherwise it would violate a constitutional obligation. The laws on the administrative courts were adopted 12 December 2018 and designed to set up a new branch of the judiciary from the 1 January 2020 that would rule on cases involving politically delicate matters such as elections, taxes and public procurements among many other key civil liberties issues. The laws were heavily criticized by the Council of Europe, the EU, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and by civil society organizations since it envisaged a system where the Minister of Justice would have very extensive powers over the administrative courts and there are no effective checks and balances to counterbalance such powers.
The Fundamental Law should be amended and the reference to administrative courts should be deleted. Any such changes in the judiciary system should only be introduced after an open and comprehensive public debate.
Further information: A Constitutional Crisis in the Hungarian Judiciary
3. Revision of the Fundamental Law of Hungary
According to government sources the Government is planning to conduct a revision of the Fundamental Law of Hungary (Constitution) and eventually cardinal laws this fall. Despite the uncertainty of the actual amendments, the leaked news suggest that the aim is to further centralize the executive power resulting in weakened checks and balances; completely excluding LGBTQ people from the adoption of children and eventually introducing enhanced government control over the judiciary further eroding the independence of the judiciary.
Introducing any amendment to the most important legal document of Hungary should only be carried out after a thorough public consultation including experts, civil society organizations and representatives of the trade unions.
4. Independent civil society remains a target
For many years independent Hungarian civil society organizations – such as Amnesty International Hungary and several other human rights and anti-corruption NGOs – have been at the forefront of direct governmental attacks and smearing media campaigns. In the last two years, the Hungarian Parliament controlled by the Fidesz’s supermajority adopted three separate laws (the so-called Lex NGO 2017 , Lex NGO 2018 and the ’special tax on immigration’ ) directly targeting civil society organizations – including the infamous ’STOP Soros legislative package’ that threatens legitimate and lawful work of individuals and organizations assisting asylum-seekers and migrants with prison sentence. Besides these laws the government and government-aligned media continues to spread stigmatizing and smearing propaganda targeting those civil society organizations that still dare to criticize the government aiming to intimidate and discredit them.
As a first step all the three laws should be immediately repealed since all of them are in clear violation of the Hungarian and international human rights standards. The government should also refrain from using stigmatizing rhetoric and government-aligned media propaganda to target civil society organizations.
Further information: Slowly, Steadily, Stealthily – How Rule of Law is Further Undermined in Hungary
We hope that you find our recommendations useful. We would be grateful if you would raise these concerns both at your meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and publicly at your press conference after the meeting. We remain available for any further information you may require.
Amnesty International Hungary
Amnesty International Finland