In a letter sent to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged passage of a procedure to “monitor” Hungary. The NGOs expressed concern over the country’s recent constitutional framework that they wrote “permits local authorities to criminalise homeless people, curbs religious freedom, and limits the rights of vulnerable groups, by restricting voting rights for persons with disabilities.
“Other problematic areas include undue political influence over key public institutions such as the Media Council and the National Judicial Office, a new body responsible for administering the courts and appointing judges,” the letter continued.
As widely reported in the media, the Parliamentary Assembly of the 47-member Council of Europe instead opted for a resolution with a key amendment to “closely follow the situation in Hungary” – and to “take stock” of progress achieved” in carrying out recommendations in the resolution.
One primary concern was Hungary’s fourth amendment to its “basic law”, which had been adopted in March, and which was subject to criticism in an opinion published earlier in June by the Venice Commission, a group of influential independent legal experts who serve the Council of Europe.
The “monitoring procedure” would have involved regular visits to Hungary, to assess progress and to engage in dialogue with the authorities, political forces, judiciary and civil society, as well as periodic evaluations debated by the Assembly.
Supporters of monitoring, such as Ms. Mailis Reps (Estonia-Alliance of Liberals and Democrats), said that “not opening a monitoring procedure would damage the credibility” of the Council of Europe. She cited both criticism from the Venice Commission and the joint letter from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Opponents, however, won the day. Robert Walter, UK, chairman of the conservative European Democratic Group, acknowledged “constitutional issues” in Hungary, but stressed further cooperation with the Venice Commission. The country “does not fall into the monitoring category,” he said. What is needed is “more scrutiny … not full-scaled surveillance.”
Currently, ten of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states are subject to the Assembly’s monitoring procedure (Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Republic of Moldova, Montenegro, Russian Federation, Serbia and Ukraine).
Just over one week before the vote, the Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law – also known as the Venice Commission, as its four annual plenary sessions take place in Venice – agreed its critical opinion on Hungary’s Fourth Amendment.
Legal experts concluded that the constitution "should not be seen as a political instrument," and that the amendment "seriously undermines the possibilities of constitutional review in Hungary and endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances."
Although the Assembly decided against monitoring, the resolution, as passed, underscores the Assembly’s “deep concern” about the erosion of democratic checks and balances, as a result of the new constitutional framework in Hungary. It states: “This new framework has excessively concentrated powers, increased discretion and reduced accountability and legal oversight of numerous government institutions and regulatory bodies in Hungary.”
Those who did not call for monitoring urged further cooperation between Hungary and the Venice Commission. It is important to note that both Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland and Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi had requested the Venice Commission opinion about the fourth amendment.
My next blog will be about the role of women in the media, following a gender equality conference in Amsterdam, where media representatives, educators and government officials will assess stereotyping and sexism in the media among other related issues.
Entirely separate from the European Union (EU), the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe is an international organisation that promotes human rights, the rule of law and democracy. It includes the European Court of Human Rights with 47 member states and 800 million citizens, including Turkey, Ukraine and the Russian Federation – among 19 non-EU members.