“We do not believe that this is the end of the story. Although it is really hard to prepare for unpredictable events, we are determined to continue our activities. We will do everything in our might to do so.” – Vera Mora, CEO, Ökotárs
We asked NGOs about their stance on the NGO law adopted by the Parliament on Tuesday and their possible future strategies in the light of the legislation. We also asked if the government’s campaign against NGOs since 2014 has affected their domestic financing in any way.
Amnesty International Hungary
The Hungarian branch of the international human rights advocate condemned the approved bill as a “prefabricated and nefarious attack on Hungarian NGOs” in a statement published on Tuesday.
“The bill approved today stigmatizing those NGOs that receive grants from abroad is an attack on both NGOs and every freedom loving, democratically committed Hungarian person,” reads the introduction of the statement.
Acting Director Júlia Iván told the Budapest Beacon that because of Amnesty’s democratic structure any strategy regarding Amnesty’s stance on the approved bill requires the approval of the membership. An extraordinary meeting of the NGO’s general assembly is to be convened within the next 8-10 days where members will decide on a strategy. According to Iván, there are two major strategies that Amnesty might follow:
Either they will fulfil their legal obligations and report themselves as a “foreign-funded NGO” while attacking the approved bill in the courts, or they will refuse to comply with the civil law from the beginning.
“The nature of the argument we present to the court will largely depend on which stance we might take,” Iván said.
Iván said she believes that they will be able to prove that the law violates both the Hungarian Constitution and fundamental freedoms of the EU. However, she voiced her concerns regarding the lengthy procedures of both the Hungarian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. As neither of these bodies is bound to a procedural deadline, it can take years until a final judgement is made.
Iván said that participants of the Civilization group, a coalition of NGOs that organised the Heroes’ Veto demonstration in April, will meet to discuss the results so far and formulate a strategy. While there are numerous scenarios, a deciding factor will be which NGOs the government harasses next.
“It might be a joint legal action or a joint protest,” she said. “Many NGOs joined the Civilization group but not all of them are as badly affected by the law as others.”
When asked about their domestic financing, Iván told the Budapest Beacon that she did not see a decrease in domestic donations. “NGOs started to spend more on communication and crowd-funding campaigns. This was not typical 5-10 years ago. People also find the government’s bullying of NGOs less likeable. This, in the long run, will be contra-productive. The anti-NGO campaign polarizes people like the anti-refugee campaign did.”
Executive Director of the anti-corruption and anti-fraud collective K-Monitor Sándor Léderer told the Budapest Beacon that they will not fulfil their legal obligations and will not report themselves to the court. He stressed the importance of NGOs taking a common stance and promised that they would petition the European Court of Justice and Human Rights in Strasbourg if that is what it takes to abolish the new law regulating civil organizations.
“We consider this [the civil law] as nothing but a technical question. People who work at K-Monitor will stick to the common cause. No governmental repression or administrative obstacle could stop us from doing our jobs.”
Ökotárs, an NGO promoting environmental improvement and awareness among civil society and the general public, also shared Civilisation’s joint statement as their official word.
When asked whether Ökotárs would boycott the law, Director Veronika Móra said: “We are not willing to put the stigma [of a foreign-funded NGO] on ourselves, however we do not want to jeopardise the operation of the organisation in the long run either.”
When asked about a possible plan B should they run out of legal options, Móra told the Budapest Beacon: “We do not believe that this is the end of the story. Although it is really hard to prepare for unpredictable events, we are determined to continue our activities. We will do everything in our might to do so.
“[The anti-NGO campaign] caused a double tendency. The better-known NGOs could benefit from it by gathering more donors. However, it had a negative effect on the smaller, vulnerable rural NGOs, whose existence largely depends on the grace of the local council.”
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU)
The human rights watchdog HCLU issued a statement on Tuesday in which they called the NGO act unlawful and compared it to similar laws adopted in Russia and Israel. The organisation believes that the most effective way of acting against the unlawful provisions is not to respect the law. They stress that given their economic management is already fully transparent, this would not violate anyone’s rights or the demand of transparency.
“We are aware of the possibility that legal proceedings may be instituted against us,” said Stefánia Kapronczay, HCLU’s Executive Director in the statement. “We are not afraid of these: year by year, we represent our clients whose fundamental rights have been violated in hundreds of cases at the Hungarian courts, the Constitutional Court and the Strasbourg Court; we are experienced in such proceedings. In order to help civil society, other foundations and associations, we must ride for a fall, proving by our example that the act violates rights. We are convinced that, in the course of lengthy proceedings, the unlawful NGO Act will fail.”
Asked if any other NGOs had contacted them to join their boycott, Kapronczay said: “NGOs might adopt numerous strategies. Given that we are a human rights advocacy organisation, we chose the instrument of civil disobedience.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC)
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee formally announced on Tuesday that they will use all legal and publicly available options to take action against the law which seriously breaches fundamental rights and will draw up a detailed course of action:
- In order to enforce our rights before the courts, we will not register as a “foreign-funded” NGO unless a court orders us to do so.
- We will submit a constitutional complaint to the Constitutional Court without delay.
- We will submit an application to the European Court of Human Rights.
- In the Hungarian judicial procedure, we will petition the judge to request a preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, as in our view the Hungarian law is not compatible with the fundamental freedoms of the EU.
- We will continue to work together with many other Hungarian NGOs in the campaign to deliver the message to every member of Hungarian society: civil society organisations work for the benefit of all society, and a vibrant and independent civil society is an essential part of a strong democracy.
- We will continue to inform the main international organisations and the international public about the Putinesque stigmatisation of civil society and NGOs.
An NGO cannot aim to give up its goals and to abandon its clients. The Helsinki Committee has a lot to do, even more than before. […] For us, these people and their needs are the most important. Therefore we are here to stay and to go on doing our job just as before.”
HHC co-Chair Márta Pardavi told the Budapest Beacon that they had seen an increase in domestic donations in recent years. She highlighted that no matter how small are these private donations, they show an increasing trend, and this bears the positive message that society cares about the work of NGOs.
The coalition of numerous NGOs issued a joint statement on Tuesday. To this day, some 212 NGOs joined the manifesto:
“On Tuesday, 13 June, after two postponed votes, the Hungarian Parliament adopted the Law on the Transparency of Foreign Funded Organisations. The community of civil society organisations united in the Civilizáció campaign continue to believe that the law is unnecessary, stigmatising and harmful.
“Unnecessary, because Hungarian civil society organisations are already transparent in their operations, provide accurate information about their donors and finances in annual reports, and carry out their activities before the public. Stigmatizing, because the law implies that organisations which work for the benefit of Hungarian society by receiving foreign grants for their work pose a threat to the country. Harmful, because it undermines mutual trust in society and questions the right to freedom of expression.
“We, as civil society organisations, are diverse. However, we are united in our protest against being stigmatized and the efforts to stop us from carrying out our mission. We help millions of people each year by serving homeless persons, giving free legal advice or welfare services, educating or supporting disadvantaged children or senior citizens, or by protecting our environment. We work on genuine and pressing social issues that receive less attention than needed and often do the job of state authorities.
“There is reason to fear that the newly adopted law will not stop the several years old governmental campaign to denounce Hungarian civil society organisations. On the contrary, this is a new step in a longer process that aims at fully discrediting civil society organisations. However, there can be no real democracy and civil liberties without independent and critical thinking and a strong civil society.
“We, civil society organisations, cherish our diversity but stand united in our goal to make Hungary a better, more liveable place. All organisations affected by the law will keep this in their mind when they make their respective decisions on implementing the law on ‘foreign funded organisations’. We are convinced that the new law is in breach of Hungary’s Basic Law and many other international treaties ratified by Hungary because it unjustifiably restricts the right to freedom of association and freedom of expression. Hence, by using all opportunities afforded by law, we will continue to protest against the ‘foreign funded NGO’ law before all available domestic and international fora. We are here to stay and to continue our common work as we must not abandon Hungarian society and the people who need and count on our support.”