GENEVA (18 June 2013) - UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has today urged the Hungarian Government to revoke a series of constitutional changes that have been widely criticised by international and regional human rights bodies as representing a backward step in human rights protection and undermining constitutional justice.
Pillay’s call came as an advisory panel of the Council of Europe issued a critical report on Hungary’s constitutional amendment, saying “it perpetuates the problematic position of the President of the National Judicial Office, seriously undermines the possibilities of constitutional review in Hungary and endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances.”*
The panel of constitutional experts, known as the Venice Commission, said the Fourth Amendment, had provisions that contradicted Hungary’s basic law and European standards.
“We welcome the Venice Commission’s opinion which confirms the concerns we expressed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted in March,” the High Commissioner said.
“The Fourth Amendment as a whole represents further retrograde steps in terms of human rights protection. This is an issue of serious concern, not least because Hungary was previously known for a highly advanced system of human rights protection,” she said.
The High Commissioner stressed that the principle of non-retrogression is of paramount importance in the area of human rights.
“Hungary should seek to maintain high standards of human rights protection,” Pillay said, highlighting that a succession of legislative changes in Hungary since 2010 have been criticised by UN special rapporteurs.
The High Commissioner said she shared the concerns of the Venice Commission on the independence of judges, noting that the powerful position of the politically appointed president of the National Judicial Office had been reinforced by the Fourth Amendment, while the court’s own self-governing body, the National Judicial Council, was not even mentioned in the Constitution.
“Our view is that this effectively undermines the independence of judges, which is essential for the protection of human rights,” Pillay said.
She also noted that the Venice Commission had highlighted a “consistent pattern” of rulings by the Constitutional Court being overridden by changing the constitution.
“The removal of all Constitutional Court case law up to 2012 is extremely worrying,” the High Commissioner said.
“Many human rights principles have been formed over the years and found their expression in the practice of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, including the Court’s ground-breaking abolition of the death penalty, which was acclaimed worldwide and served as an inspiration for other countries, including South Africa, Ukraine, Albania and Lithuania,” she added.
“As the Venice Commission says, this *threat for constitutional justice leads to a risk that may negatively affect the separation of powers as an essential tenet of democracy, the protection of human rights and the rule of law,” Pillay said.*
The High Commissioner welcomed the strong criticism of the Venice Commission on the wide use of “cardinal laws” that are often introduced by individual members of parliament, so avoiding the scrutiny foreseen for government proposals. These laws are adopted by a two-thirds majority, which the current government enjoys.
“My Office’s own comprehensive legal analysis on legislative developments in Hungary since 2010 has identified this as a major problem because it ensures future less broad majorities in Parliament will not be able to change the social, fiscal, family and other policies of the current majority,” Pillay said.
“I concur with the Venice Commission’s conclusion that this is a serious threat to democracy.”
The High Commissioner noted that the Hungarian government is envisaging a further amendment in the autumn in response to some of the criticisms of the Venice Commission and also the European Commission.
“But at this point these concessions appear very minor,” the High Commissioner said. "I urge the Hungarian Government to address seriously all of the issues raised over the last three years by the international human rights mechanisms as well as by relevant regional ones such as the Venice Commission."
*CORRECTIONS: The press release has been amended to introduce exact quotes from the Venice Commission report published on their website on 17 June.
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