Human Rights Watch

“Unless blood flows”: Human Rights Watch’s report on Hungary

Lately I have been struck by the high number of incidents, often resulting in death, involving relatives or people living in the same household. A daughter kills her mother, an 85-year-old former high-ranking police officer kills his 79-year-old wife, a professional soccer player kills his partner and her son in a family dispute. These are only three cases I remember from the last two weeks or so.

In addition, it was only yesterday that the public at last learned that it was not the blind komondor that knocked over “Terike,” the domestic partner–since then wife–of József Balogh, mayor and member of parliament (Fidesz). Balogh admitted that he hit her in the face several times, grabbed her by the hair, and hit her head on the porch railing.

domestic violence2I’ve dealt with the subject of domestic violence, a very serious problem in Hungary, several times. The first reference I found on Hungarian Spectrum is from January 2009 when a bill was adopted by parliament which introduced the widely used practice outside of Hungary of a restraining or protective order. At that time President László Sólyom refused to sign it and instead sent it to the Constitutional Court. His objection was based on a section in the Constitution [58. § (1)] that guaranteed the right to choose one’s place of residence. I guess that needs no additional comment. The Constitutional Court naturally found the president’s legal opinion brilliant. After all, he was the chief justice of the court between 1990 and 1998.

In September 2012 the question came up again after Fidesz initially refused even to consider the issue. When public opinion forced the government party to act, they tried to make the law as weak as possible. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and in his former life a Protestant minister, was upset about the opposition’s “bluestockings attitude” and objected to talking about “violence within the family” because the family is sacred. Instead of family, the government insisted on “violence within the confines of partnership or relations.”

Eventually, after a long and rather fruitless discussion, the bill became law in July 2013, but it has serious shortcomings. For example, an assault against an intimate partner will be classified as an instance of domestic violence only if there are at least two separate occasions of abuse. Moreover, the new legislation does not cover non-cohabitating partners.

All in all, the Hungarian situation was considered to be so serious that Human Rights Watch (HRW) decided to issue its findings in a lengthy situation report. It was written by Lydia Gall, researcher on the Balkans/Eastern Europe in the Europe and Central Asia Division of the organization. Those who are interested in the details should read the report itself. Here I will concentrate on the official Hungarian reaction to it.

First, it is evident that the Hungarian government received a copy of the report before November 6, the official release date, because they were prepared to combat HRW’s “allegations” within hours after the appearance of the report. The very first reaction, a legal rebuttal, came from the Hungarian police. In my opinion it is almost certain that the author of the rebuttal is not a policeman. I rather suspect that it is the work of some government lawyer in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. In it the Hungarian government complains about “the several factual errors” and “the lack of sources.” From the document it becomes clear that the representatives of HRW did pay a visit to the Hungarian police headquarters, but it seems they were not convinced by the assurances of the policemen they met. The police’s “Communication Service” spent the rest of its document listing all the government resolutions to battle domestic violence, starting in 2003. Even this glowing report on the excellence of the Hungarian law, however, had to admit that charges against someone who commits domestic violence can be brought only by the victim.

The Hungarian police are especially sensitive about the issue of their officers’ preparedness in cases of domestic violence. The document states that there are “several forums” where a victim can complain in case the policeman refuses to act in the manner expected, but it doesn’t identify any of these forums by name.

A couple of hours after the release of the police communiqué, Zoltán Balog’s ministry also raised its voice against HRW’s claims that the Hungarian government’s system of handling domestic violence “simply doesn’t work.” The HRW report contends that because of police inaction and the lack of legal safeguards, women who are victims of domestic violence don’t get proper protection. Naturally, the Hungarian government doesn’t accept this verdict. Moreover, the ministry spokesman pointed out that too little time has passed since the law took effect and therefore no meaningful evaluation of the system can be undertaken. The ministry also said that the representatives of Human Rights Watch had assured the ministry earlier that the report would not be a comprehensive picture of the Hungarian situation but would only mention the most flagrant cases in order to inspire the Hungarian government to take further steps. I might add that throughout its reply, Balog’s ministry refused to refer to domestic violence by its common name (in Hungarian családon belüli erőszak) but instead used “kapcsolati erőszak,” a word combination cooked up by Balog in order to avoid the word “család” (family).

Then came the official spokeswoman of Fidesz, Gabriella Selmeczi, who charged that the criticism of Human Rights Watch is not really about the shortcomings of Hungary’s handling of domestic violence. In this case, as usual, Selmeczi continued, “we are witnessing an artificially generated international pressure” on Hungary. She can’t help thinking of the relationship between HRW and George Soros, the American financier with Hungarian roots. After all, last year Soros gave 20 million dollars to the organization. Selmeczi also added that the same Soros “has given millions to Gordon Bajnai’s foundation and has business dealings with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s firms.”

It doesn’t seem to matter to the Fidesz propagandists that Gyurcsány’s firms have nothing to do with the finances of the party. Moreover, the so-called millions given to Bajnai’s foundation turned out to be a small grant for a few thousand dollars from one of Soros’s foundations. The same is true about the money Gyurcsány’s firm got. Soros has been since 2010 financing projects aimed at Roma integration throughout Europe. Altus, Gyurcsány’s firm, is involved with such projects in the Balkan region and this received $13,800 toward the financing of the project.

So this was yet another Fidesz attempt to discredit a respectable NGO, this time Human Rights Watch, by claiming that it is an instrument of George Soros aimed at bolstering the political chances of the opposition. Gabriella Selmeczi most likely forgot that in 2010 George Soros and Viktor Orbán actually, after many years, met again to discuss his Roma integration project. At this meeting Soros offered one million dollars to the Hungarian government after the red sludge accident in 2010. Soros apparently also offered financial assistance for the Orbán government’s efforts at Roma integration. I don’t know what happened afterward. It is possible that Soros changed his mind once he realized that Roma integration was transformed into Roma school segregation with the active assistance of Zoltán Balog.

In brief, the Orbán government’s commitment to seriously combating domestic violence is lukewarm at best. I highly doubt that the government will try to improve the existing ineffectual laws as a result of Human Rights Watch’s indictment of their shortcomings. I also doubt that the police’s reluctance to interfere in domestic disputes will change any time soon.