In Central and South East Europe
English

EU must stop Hungary’s degradation of civil society space, Head of the Eastern European Zone at Terre des Hommes explains why in an interview

2017-07-19

New laws within Hungary could have a devastating effect on civil society in the country and across the region. Sendrine Constant, head of the Eastern European Zone at Terre des Hommes, explains the dangerous effects this law could have.

How is the new law being proposed in Hungary affecting NGOs?

The new law, supposedly to increase transparency, means any civil society organisation receiving over 7.2 million HUF (€24,000) has to register with the Hungarian court and is forced to label all materials published within Hungary with ‘Organisation supported from abroad’. This includes reports, websites and press material. Terre des Hommes is completely funded by organisations outside Hungary, and so will be subject to this new legislation.

The law discriminates against NGOs receiving funding from outside the country. By making these organisations visibly label themselves, the government want the general public to become suspicious of organisations carrying out important civil society work.

How is Terre des Hommes reacting to this law coming into force?

Terre des Hommes has joined the large civil society movement opposed to these laws, and has jointly lodged a complaint with the constitutional court with the many organisations affected by them.

We have decided to comply with the law by registering with the court and abiding by the measures stipulated by the legislation, but will join the fight to have this stigmatising law overturned.

What damage could shrinking society space do to Hungary and Eastern Europe?

This law is a symbolic attack on organisations which look to make the Hungarian government accountable for its actions. It is a deliberate attempt to undermine democratic values within Hungary, by attempting to ‘name and shame’ organisations carrying out work which could contradict the government’s official narrative.

Worryingly, the Hungarian law is very similar to legislation in Russia which classifies organisations receiving foreign funding as ‘foreign agents’. There is every possibility these laws will become stricter over time, to a point where Terre des Hommes and other organisations would not be able to fulfil their role keeping governments accountable for the rights of children and other vulnerable people. This could ultimately lead to authorities suspending their right to operate in the country.

Such a move would be a tragedy for Hungary, as funds from external sources such as the European Union are critical to allow organisations to monitor policies and hold the government to account – not just in Hungary but across the world. They do not exist just to criticise, but to monitor and ensure that states are honouring their obligations on human rights, the environment, democracy and many other issues.

What affect could the NGO law have on the children that TDH helps – both in Hungary and further afield?

In Hungary, this new law will affect the rights of children on the move, who will have more difficulty accessing essential services such as legal support, as the organisations providing this help will not be as active as they were before. Vulnerable children will also be at increased risk of being detained purely because of their migration status.

Across the region, a domino effect of similar laws could have even more chilling consequences. In Moldova, new legislation is proposing to target any organisation which could influence government policies. This would destroy many organisations’ ability to promote child rights within Moldova, and could lead to the government not bothering to honour children’s rights in their future work. Similar laws are also being contemplated in Romania.

What can be done?

Concerned citizens are mobilising to fight this law within Hungary, with many taking to the streets to protest. But this has not been enough to stop Victor Orbán’s government pushing these laws through.

The European Union launched a legal probe into the law last week (13 July), but similar punitive measures taken so far have done very little to stop the Hungarian government trampling over civil society space. Infringement procedures have had limited effect, so the European Union must not be afraid to impose sanctions on Hungary and other European countries must raise their voices and criticise this rolling back of EU values.

Countries within the EU should not be able to enjoy all the perks of membership without abiding by the Union’s rules. Hungary should not be able to get away with this. It’s time countries who truly value civil society space to stand up and be counted by denouncing these dangerous actions.

Civil society organisations themselves also must not be intimidated by Hungary’s actions, and make their voices heard by pressuring the EU into defending civil society’s ability to protect rights and freedoms within the country.