UN Special Rapporteurs take issue with NGO law

May 15, 2017

UN Special Rapporteurs from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights David Kaye, Annalisa Ciampi, and Michel Forst have sent a letter to Hungary’s representative to the United Nations to clarify the situation regarding Hungary’s controversial NGO-stigmatizing bill. After reviewing the bill, the rapporteurs are “concerned that the bill is superfluous.” Below are some lines from their letter.

“We are strongly concerned that the Bill appears to discriminate against and de-legitimize NGOs that receive funding from foreign organizations or individuals, and has the potential to stigmatize their work. By forcing NGOs to use a label such as “foreign-supported organization” on their websites, press, and other public communications, regardless of how the NGOs identify themselves, the Bill would curtail the NGOs’ rights to freedom of expression and association. The majority of NGOs that receive foreign funding are focused on civil and political rights, and more likely to criticize government and government policies, such as organizations who receive funding by George Soros and the Open Society Foundation, which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has specifically singled out in his public remarks, including in his February 2017 annual state of the nation speech. Because the proposed Bill applies selectively to some NGOs, and because those organizations would undoubtedly face public stigmatization by being associated with foreign funders, their expressions of peaceful dissent would likely be chilled.

“We are further concerned that although the amendments to Act CLXXV on freedom of association, public benefit status and the operation and support of CSOs were included in the legislative agenda for 2017, submitted in December 2016 by the Government, eventually the Bill was submitted as an individual MPs proposal, thereby circumventing the provisions of Act CXXXI of 2010 on public participation in the legislative process. As a consequence, there have been no public consultations about the legislation.

“In connection with above alleged facts and concerns, we would like to refer your Excellency’s Government to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Hungary on 17 January 1974, which guarantee freedom of expression and opinion to everyone. Article 19(2) guarantees ‘freedom to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’ By being forced to choose between being fully funded, or operating without a stigmatizing label, the above restrictions in the Bill would significantly restrict NGOs’ freedom of expression and ability to operate.

“While the right to freedom of expression is not absolute under ICCPR Article 19(3), restrictions on expression are only appropriate under narrow circumstances. Restrictions must be provided by law, and be necessary and proportionate to protect the rights or reputations of others or for the protection of national security, public order, or public health and morals. While fighting money laundering and terrorism funding (which are stated as concerns in the preamble) are indeed legitimate and important State interests, it is unclear how forcing NGOs to register as ‘foreign-supported organizations’ furthers those State interests.

“We are seriously concerned that the Bill is superfluous. The compilation of financial reports is already mandatory for NGOs and they are available for public access. The public may access information on the sources and funded activities these organizations received and whether these resources were granted abroad. Additionally, we are concerned that the sanctions imposed by the Bill are not proportionate. In fact, the Bill would introduce new grounds for dissolution by the court as a sanction for non-compliance with administrative obligations, which is a restriction of the right to freedom of association. The dissolution of an NGO for failure to self-label as a ‘foreign-supported organization’ is unduly harsh and disproportionate.”

Questions

The rapporteurs also ask some questions in their letter. For instance,

  • How would forcing NGOs to declare themselves “foreign-supported organizations” effectively combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism?
  • What is the purpose behind differential treatment between NGOs, including the distinction made between those NGOs with more than EUR 24,000 of annual foreign funding and those with less?
  • How would the bill “supplement meaningfully” the already existing laws pertaining to NGOs?
  • How would the bill advance the stated goal of transparency (especially since NGOs already submit financial reports which are accessible to the public)?
  • What are the legal grounds for adoption of the legislation and how are they compatible with Hungary’s obligations under international human rights law to respect and promote the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association?