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US State Department Report Assesses the State of Human Rights in Hungary in 2016

By Tom Szigeti // 2017.03.06.

Last Friday, the US State Department released its annual 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices; among these was a report on Hungary as well.

In the words of recently confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the reports, which are published every year by the state department, “demonstrate the United States’ unwavering commitment to advancing liberty, human dignity, and global prosperity.” The reports are used by American legislators, judges, and federal officials “as a resource for shaping policy and guiding decisions, informing diplomatic engagements, and determining the allocation of foreign aid and security sector assistance.” This is the 41st year that the department has compiled such a list.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo: AFP)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo: AFP)

According to the State Department’s report,

The most significant human rights problem remained the government’s handling of migrants and asylum seekers seeking to transit the country, which was marked by several reports of physical abuse and xenophobic rhetoric. International organizations and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to voice criticism of the systematic erosion of the rule of law; potential violations of international humanitarian law; weakening of checks and balances, democratic institutions, and transparency; and intimidation of independent societal voices since 2010.

The issues of corruption and lack of transparency in government were also detailed by the report. In particular, it noted that, in Hungary in 2016, “officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity…authorities were consistently reluctant to investigate corruption allegations in a transparent, public manner.”

It also discussed the “numerous” reports of government corruption that had appeared over the course of last year, most notably the Central Bank of Hungary’s (MNB) unlawful allocations of public funds worth roughly 267 billion forint ($960 million USD) to private foundations established by the bank in 2013 and 2014, as numerous controversies surrounding parliamentary and judicial responses to the scandal. The reported also noted that “as of November [2016], no criminal investigations had been initiated in the case.”

The report listed prison overcrowding, the physical abuse of inmates and detainees by prison staff; a “politically determined” government registration process for religious groups; government corruption; “growing media concentration that restricted editorial independence”; and increasing government pressure on NGOs and civil society groups, as outstanding human rights issues facing Hungary.

While noting that human rights groups and NGOS generally operate without facing government restrictions, the report noted that “senior government officials…continued the political smear campaign against human rights NGOs that began in 2013 and continued after the 2014 national elections.”  The document particularly noted efforts on the part of the ruling Fidesz party to paint certain human-rights groups, such as the Helsinki Committee, as “fake NGOs” that are in the pocket of Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, a familiar target of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s criticism.

The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters of the US Department of State in Washington D.C.'s Foggy Bottom neighborhood

The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters of the US Department of State in Washington D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood

The State Department publication also mentioned among the country’s human rights problems the issues of domestic violence against women and children, sexual harassment of women, anti-Semitism, the “abuse and inhuman treatment of institutionalized children and persons with physical and mental disabilities,” as well as the discrimination and social exclusion of Roma people.

The Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ) reported 19 anti-Semitic incidents over the course of 2016, according to the State department document. Of these, two involved vandalism; seven involved threats; six involved hate speech; and one physical assault, namely the murder of an Israeli tourist in the town of Tiszakecske last April. The report also noted that there had been 46 anti-Semitic incidents in 2015.

Regarding judicial practices, the report said that while Hungary’s courts function independently, “attempts to exert political influence over the judiciary occurred.” In particular, the report cited government officials’ public criticism of a Veszprem court’s acquittal of suspects in the 2010 red sludge flooding catastrophe as an example of an attempt to influence a judicial decision, noting as well that the head of the Hungarian Supreme Court had expressed dissatisfaction with such statements.

Concerning freedom of expression, the report noted that freedom of speech and of the press are officially protected by law. It also observed that “the broad powers of the media regulatory authority, however, together with a high level of media concentration and an advertising market highly dependent on governmental contracts maintained a climate conducive to self-censorship and political influence.” The document viewed the lack of objectivity on the part of state media, as well as the reduction of independent media outlets, including left-wing daily Népszabadság’s sudden closure last year, as causes for concern.

On Saturday, Hungary’s foreign ministry disputed the findings of the report, arguing that it was not a fundamental human right for “crowds of people” to “march” through safe countries, violate their national laws and choose where they want to live.

In its statement to Hungarian wire service MTI, the foreign ministry criticized the State Department for supposedly retaining a “Democrat-aligned apparatus,” while adding that it is in agreement with US President Donald Trump on illegal immigration, and considers the security of the Hungarian people its top priority. Current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who officially issued the report, is a Trump appointee.

The Hungarian foreign ministry also claimed that “objective facts” proved that the allegations of corruption made against the government were “baseless.”

You can find the State Department’s report on Hungary in its entirety here, and the rest of its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016 here.

Via the US Department of State, Hungary Matters, and MTI

Images via Wikimedia Commons and the Guardian/AFP