Measures of the Orbán-government are a threat to democracy

By today, the situation created by the inability of all Hungarian ruling governments since the transition in 1989 to reform the education, pension and health care systems has become unbearable. The political elite has failed in every aspect. The currently ruling Orban-government is proving over and over again why there is a great need for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. The only question that remains to be answered is how to involve people in the work and the supporting of the HCLU, says Balázs Dénes, Executive Director of the organization.

What’s going on at the HCLU? It seems like you are featured lot lately.

The HCLU’s work is receiving a lot of attention lately. Our primary tasks are to keep up the high quality of work that is expected from us, to ensure that our work continues to serve as primary source materials in such a fast changing legal environment. In the past one and a half year, we have been under continuous pressure and this will only become greater, so it is very important to keep our common sense.

Another significant change – which can’t always be felt from the inside, but is evident from the outside - is that the HCLU is going up in every sense of the word: the organization is expanding, the budget is growing, we are present in community media and we have become more professional. It is not my job to judge our position in Hungarian civil society, but if I put my modesty aside, I have to say we’re doing pretty good. From the beginning, the founders and the HCLU’s first Executive Director, Judit Fridli have put great emphasis on professional integrity and on how to be effective while staying credible by taking on transparent lobbying activities and joint work with political parties, by attending and participating in Parliamentary committees.

It is also important to plan ahead for the future and the near future. We have a large task before us: changing our system of funding. The present model used from the beginning and which now needs to be changed is based on funding from international private foundations. We would like to be supported by more and more Hungarian citizens and companies with a yearly donation of 5.000 HUF to 500.000 HUF. At the moment, the Orban-government’s activities are contributing nicely to this plan.

How is the Orban-government contributing to the shifting of funding?

To be honest, they are already and continuously contributing by constantly derogating basic human rights and by doing so, are sending more and more people to our side of the field. There are hardly any people in our scope, who are ignorant as to why there is such a great need for the HCLU. The only question is how to convince these people to involve themselves in our work and to support our causes.

Who are you counting on to be the funding base of the HCLU?

Our goal is to establish a supporting member base made up of a couple of thousand people. We are counting on those, who understand the significance of such an independent organization and its activities. When I think of all the hate mail we receive, it should also be mentioned that building a mass movement or political party is not our intention. Our intention is to have half of the country supporting us.

What type of challenges do you see for the HCLU? What are you preparing for?

The first 10 years were about building our credibility and creating a standard in the issues we cover. To ensure that even when there is disagreement on views, our opinions are still considered well-founded and are something to be reckoned with.

The next ten years are about building our popularity and our own support base. You don’t always have to agree with us, but it is clear for example, that our opinions on drug policy cannot be ignored by saying that we are just a bunch of junkies.

Legal defense is totally pointless if communication is not taken into consideration. Your work is meaningless, unless you are able to relay it to the media and to the public through your own channels. We are not a research institute, we do not create materials to be locked away in our desk drawers. We have always put great emphasis on communication and we will continue to explore new ways to communicate. On Facebook, the HCLU has the largest number of fans in the civil sector, right after Tilos Radio, which has its own surface, namely its radio channel. The HCLU’s Video Advocacy Program is also about communication. Four years ago, we’ve noticed that the world has changed and making a film does not require a 3-person crew and cameras worth tens of thousands of dollars. All you need is a vision, an idea. You have to give freedom to the staff to utilize their talents and of course, you have to believe in what you do. Today, the HCLU’s films on drug policy are unique in the world, this genre is not produced by any other organization. Video advocacy is a success story for us and the HCLU is known abroad as the Chronicler of harm reduction and drug policy reform.

The HCLU’s Roma Program is also unique.

Contrary to our other programs, the Roma Program is essentially built on very intensive fieldwork. It would be useless to try to map out the situation from behind a desk in the capitol about things going on in the rural regions. We’ve also realized that the state funded anti-discrimination lawyers network and local lawyers are either unable, do not want to or are afraid to go against local authorities, so the only solution was to delegate lawyers from Budapest. Since travel and other operational costs would be too high, we use skype to keep contact with the so-called HCLU Points. HCLU Points can be found in the field, in rural territories and are operated by local activists in communities. They allow anyone to turn to them with their legal problems and they provide technical assistance in contacting the lawyers.

For us, presence in the community doesn’t just mean that we mediate and locate trouble issues, but we also strive to hand down our experience in lobbying, advocacy and community building. The HCLU holds trainings regularly on diverse issues ranging from patients’ rights to general criminal procedures. We build the community and we try not to focus too much on the social issues, but we basically have to deal with what is oppressing people on a daily basis.

What has the HCLU accomplished so far?

The uncovering of institutionalized discrimination and being able to prove if a police procedure was discriminative. Due to the previously low number of court cases, it is also an accomplishment that the HCLU is able to initiate proceedings in Hungarian court or even international courts if we encounter police misconduct. It is our goal to change the prejudiced thinking of the majority, to open their eyes through our films or blog posts to the poverty facing those living in segregation.

The goal of community organizing and building is to enable Roma and other poor communities to stand up for their rights. To show an alternative to the now common apathy, to turn to a positive direction and believe that something can be done. Part of this is the Make Your Voice Heard project, the filed requests for public interest data, organizing different programs within the communities, like the Let’s Read Together program launched by the OSI.

Are you fighting a losing battle?

I wouldn’t call it a losing battle, but the work sometimes does feel hopeless. It is legitimate and significant, but it is also difficult, tiring and frustrating. And not just for the Roma Rights program. The presentation and comprehensive communication of any aspect of human rights to the public and the changing of thinking seems very hopeless at the moment.

Due to the lack of information, Hungarian society is very prejudiced, so protecting the rights of those living with HIV/AIDS or those using drugs is not easy either. The economic crisis, the rise of far right extremist views and far right politics, and the moral crisis in politics have made the environment for human rights defense activities unaccepting. By today, not only tolerance and solidarity have lost meaning for the majority, but have basically reached a point where degrading a Roma person is okay, but calling attention to discrimination and poverty counts as being extreme. This for sure isn’t a good environment for the practicing of human rights. Fidesz and the Orban –government both have a significant role in the deterioration of human rights, but could not have reached this scale of racist hate that describes today’s Hungary by themselves. Fear and prejudice have been present even before the 1989 transition.

Is this a categorical criticism of the political elite?

Yes. The Orban-government can be blamed for many things as they have launched an attack on democracy. The way in which the Constitution was amended and it’s text, the acceptance of the new media laws, the taking and the degrading of the Constitutional Court, the attack on the independence of the justice system and the tapering of human rights are all very harmful. The situation created by the inability of all Hungarian ruling governments since the transition in 1989 to reform the education, pension and health care systems has become unbearable.

What role does the HCLU play in this situation?

The legitimacy of the HCLU is fueled by the political power and factors connected to the definition of authority, which are present in a well-operating democracy as well. It is important to have organizations which are totally independent from the state and government and which even in time of peace, war, crisis or prosperity are able to point out faults of the system, which may result in corruption or human rights violations. In part because of the Orbán-government and in part because the political elite has failed miserably, these organizations have a much bigger task ahead of them in today’s Hungary.

Can you imagine a time when the HCLU will no longer be needed?

is the human rights defender’s paradox: if everything worked perfectly, there would be no need for us. I can imagine such a place, but I don’t think it will happen in Central Europe nor in countries we look to as a model. Even Canada needs independent human rights watchdogs. If we were to reach a standard in transparency that Sweden has, there would be no need for such a large number of lawsuits initiated for the denial of public interest data requests. So for now, this is not a realistic scenario.

How many sympathizers does the HCLU have?

Sympathizers who may not necessarily agree with all of the HCLU’s programs, but agree that there is need for such an NGO. A public poll was conducted 4 years ago and we found that 14% of Hungarians have heard of the HCLU. This may seem like a small number, but it basically means hundreds of thousands of people, which today, is no doubt much higher. The number of those who say they love the HCLU will always be less. The more issues you comment on, the more dividing you will be. The more programs we launch, the less people will agree with everything we do. However, we might have more and more people who sympathize with a certain program. For instance, most people, with the exclusion of mainly doctors, will surely be able to line up behind the HCLU’s Patients’ Rights Program. Our Freedom of Information Program, which fights to access public interest data is similar.

I believe there is only a small number of people who disagree, when the HCLU fights to attain information on the salary of a state owned company executive. The same people however may not agree with us when it comes to Roma rights, HIV or drug related issues. There may also be many people who would agree with the HCLU’s mission, but haven’t heard of us.

Human rights defenders are never fighting for the rights of the steady middle-class citizens. Funding-wise it would be smarter to have separate organizations dealing with separate issues, but I do believe in operating from under one roof and for this, we have to allow people to fund our programs directly. Those who support our Drug Policy Program wouldn’t necessarily have to agree with the Roma Rights Program’s mission, but would have to accept that today there is no other NGO with a better knowledge of drug policy than the HCLU. The HCLU as an ideal, as a rights defender can only be ‘sold’ to a small percentage, but many more would be open to our programs’ independent goals.

Where will the HCLU be in 10 years?

It will be around and will hopefully go nation-wide with continuous presence in at least the bigger cities. The HCLU has previously taken on cases from the countryside, however it is difficult to react efficiently and effectively to issues from afar. I also envision an increased regional and international presence. The HCLU’s staff, the organization itself and its programs have an incredibly good reputation abroad. By now, many of the programs have reached a potential that is worth taking abroad. Our drug policy activities are internationally renowned, but we would like to improve on marketing.

The HCLU’s Freedom of Information Program is also well known internationally. Besides the continuous expert work, it is also a result of having won a lawsuit against the Republic of Hungary - originally initiated against the Constitutional Court - at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This was the first lawsuit in which the ECHR used the Right to Freedom of Information Act and acknowledged that the European Human Rights Convention’s paragraphs also apply to freedom of information. The ECHR ruling had no serious press coverage in Hungary, meanwhile abroad, conferences were organized to discuss and analyze this single ruling. There is a double standard: in Hungary, the HCLU is thought of as a Hungarian NGO, but internationally, its Drug Policy Program is included in the top 10 leading drug policy organizations in the world and many of our other programs are also on the road to international recognizance.

What kind of feedback do you receive?

The frequently changing governments have taught us that no matter who is in power, it is always the opposition that pays more attention to us, for example by texting amendment proposals from HCLU materials. That’s just the way it goes. The opposition is always more open to rights defenders’ reasoning and criticism than the government. The HCLU is close to other NGOs, they are familiar with us and they acknowledge us. Naturally, we also receive a lot of criticism and there’s also no shortage of hate mail especially for the Roma Rights Program. Of course these have to be handled where they belong, I do not consider this to be dramatic. We believe the Internet is a tool for expressing opinions, so we do not moderate or delete comments from our website. We did not feel the need to have anonymous comments on the Roma Rights Program’s blog on our website, however comments can be posted to our Facebook page along with the commenter’s name and face.

Why doesn’t the HCLU accept state funding?

In the beginning, the founders of the HCLU established that its independence, besides political independence, also means being financially independent. Initiating a lawsuit against a ministry on Monday, then negotiating with a state secretary on Tuesday and accepting state funding on Wednesday, does not work. Adopting international examples, such as the ACLU’s by not accepting state funds is a policy we would not like to change. The HCLU will keep operating as long as it can be financed without state funding. Building a supporter base is not only important for our ideals, but is vital in order to establish a strong funding base for operations. It is also important for Hungarian civil society to start looking for sources in an innovative way. The HCLU needs to build a thousand, if not ten-thousand strong support base willing to contribute to the HCLU.

How transparent are the HCLU’s activities?

Perfectly. Everything we do is transparent and can be found on our website. It is unimaginable that the HCLU should write a report and it be sent to only one political party. All Parliamentary parties receive the same letter, study or materials, with the exception of Jobbik. We do acknowledge the Jobbik’s presence, but we do not consider them to be a democratic party, therefore we do not send them materials. The HCLU will communicate with a Jobbik committee chairman if it is vital, but MP’s will not receive our materials.

Who work at the HCLU?

There are about 30 employees, about half of them work full-time, but our numbers are constantly increasing. The workload is gigantic, but the staff is highly motivated, they love what they do, are expert professionals and they feel that their work does pay off.

The HCLU did not work with volunteers for a long time, but in the past few years, as our reputation grew, the number of people offering their help has increased greatly. Today, the Roma Rights Program has 20-30 volunteers ready to be mobilized. I love the people I work with, I love the atmosphere and the feeling that what we do is not in vain, it does have a purpose, we are basically trying to better society.

What hasn’t the HCLU achieved yet? What is the dream?

A stable and functional democracy in Hungary, an open society built on real values. These are goals the HCLU has had since its first day. However, it will take a great deal of work and a great number of supporters we can continuously count on and build on to achieve this. So for now, the dream is to have a stable supporting base, to have thousands of people around us who recognize the importance of the work we do. I believe these people already exist, somewhere near us, but we haven’t been able to approach them yet. This is one of the important tasks ahead of us for the next 6-12 months.

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