Only two major diplomatic missions speak out on NGO law

June 15, 2017

On Tuesday, in a vote split along party lines, the National Assembly of Hungary adopted a Fidesz bill to stigmatize NGOs that receive foreign funding. NGOs choosing not to label themselves as foreign-funded face the threat of being legally dissolved. Despite domestic and international criticism that the bill unfairly imposes excessive obligations and disproportionate sanctions on NGOs, the legislation was adopted with unilateral support by Hungary’s ruling Fidesz-KDNP party alliance.

On Wednesday, we contacted various embassies in Budapest to see whether they had any official statements to make on the subject.  We received mixed responses.

No comment, no response.

The embassies of Sweden, Germany, Holland, France, and Israel either had no comment or didn’t bother getting back to us. The German embassy neglected to forward us remarks made by foreign ministry spokesperson Martin Schaefer.

Ask us and we’ll point you in some direction.

The Canadian embassy and Budapest representative of the European Commission sent us links to reactions by officials on social media and elsewhere.

  • The Canadians referred us to a tweet published by the Canadian foreign ministry.

  • The European Commission’s Budapest representative forwarded us this exciting clip of Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein saying that the EC is looking into the law to see whether it is compatible with EU law.

Ask and ye shall receive!

Only two embassies furnished the Beacon with a statement: the United States and Norway.

The US embassy sent us what may likely be their strongest criticism of a Hungarian law since President Donald Trump moved into the White House.

The United States is troubled by the Hungarian parliament’s passage of legislation that unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties. This new law, particularly in the context of government rhetoric portraying civil society organizations receiving foreign funding as acting against the interests of society, stigmatizes local organizations and will have a chilling effect on the ability of Hungarians to organize themselves and address their concerns to the government in a democratic manner. If signed into law, this legislation will constitute a step backward from the principles of freedom of association and expression embodied in NATO, the EU, and the OSCE, and from our shared commitments to supporting civil society. Statements that this legislation is based on the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in the United States are false.

It is clear from the US embassy’s statement that it believes the NGO law is meant to silence groups critical of the government. The final sentence of the statement is perhaps the strongest: the US wants nothing to do with Hungary’s NGO law and rejects the notion that it is somehow based on its own Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Before reading the Norwegian statement, it is important to note that Norway is the largest contributor to the Norway/European Economic Area Grants, which provides funding to the poorest EU countries in exchange for access to the European Economic Area. A small portion of these grants are designated for civil society.

In 2014, the Hungarian government launched an open assault against the NGOs receiving the civil funds, accusing them of intervening in the country’s domestic political affairs, budgetary fraud, and a long list of transgressions, targeting a number of recipients of Norwegian civil funds and especially those NGOs responsible for administering the grants in Hungary, in particular Ökotárs Foundation, the regranting organization led  Veronika Mora.

The government’s witch-hunt was without precedent in modern times. Police raided the offices of NGOs.  The organizations were threatened with revocation of their tax ID numbers, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán personally ordered the State Audit Office to launch investigations into the NGOs, something legal experts say was unlawful because the civil society fund does not fall under the audit office’s jurisdiction.

The government’s allegations were eventually shown to be false, as police dropped investigations and judges threw cases out of court for lack of evidence.  Needless to say, the sorry affair left a sour taste in the mouths of the donor countries, particularly Norway. Bilateral relations between Hungary and Norway sank to a new low and, judging from a recent interview given by the Norwegian ambassador to Hungary, have yet to fully recover.

That said, here is what we received from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway:

Norway’s ambassador in Budapest Mr. Olav Berstad says that he regrets that the NGO law has been adopted by the Hungarian Parliament without due regard to or consideration of the most serious concerns expressed by the Venice Commission in its preliminary opinion on 2 June. As the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sees it, the law implies that organizations which receive support from abroad in a completely legitimate way, risk being stigmatized and prevented from fulfilling their important role in the Hungarian society. The Norwegian side is concerned that the law will negatively affect civil society, and consequently democracy, in Hungary. On behalf of higher Norwegian authorities, the Embassy has previously raised our concerns with the Hungarian side, and we will continue to do so, says the ambassador.

The law gives rise to questions of how it is to be interpreted. On the surface, it seems that future EEA and Norway grants which in some way or another will benefit civil society, either channelled through or outside the Hungarian government, need to be labelled as foreign funding. The EEA and Norway grants logo will probably not be enough. In the past, this logo has been readily posted on the internet and in printed material by the Hungarian project operators, including municipalities, companies and organisations, as a sign of recognition, quality and transparency. In the NGO programme period which expired in April this year, 2767 Hungarian civil society organisations applied for Norway grants funding, and 407 organisations and 448 projects were selected for funding within a total financing window of EUR 13.5 million. The principle remains also for the future, that these grants to civil society must be administered and decided upon by a fund manager organisation which is independent of local, regional or national authorities. The selection of the fund manager is each time done through an open tender competition among qualified and competent organisations, says the Norwegian ambassador.