Thursday

1st Dec 2022

Opinion

In Orban's Hungary, the law is not for everyone

  • Hungary's Viktor Orban with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. 'Once we have reached this stage, it is preposterous to talk about 'risks' to the rule of law' (Photo: European Commission)

EU institutions are still bending over backwards to react to what is seen as "a clear risk of a serious breach" of EU values -among them, the rule of law -in Hungary.

But recent declarations of prime minister Viktor Orban serve as undeniable proof that the rule of law is not only under a risk of a serious breach, but has literally ceased to exist for the most vulnerable in Hungary, as the state goes into open defiance of observing its legal duties owed to them.

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Europe owes it to them to acknowledge the true depth of its rule-of-law crisis.

In the past month, Orban has seen to it that public authorities would not pay legal compensation owed to members of two particularly vulnerable groups: Roma victims of segregated education, and prisoners detained in conditions that violate their human dignity.

Both groups, he maintains, are undeserving of compensation—and his personal views seem to have immediate legal effect.

A number of Roma former students in Gyöngyöspata, a small town in north-eastern Hungary haunted by the memory of racist paramilitary marches, successfully sued the authorities who ran their former - segregated - elementary school for damages.

After several years of futile legal battles against segregation itself, this victory was expected to leave them with a tangible outcome, and an opportunity to take their destiny in their own hands.

But the deadline for defendants to pay the damages passed earlier this month, and they publicly expressed unwillingness to observe the payment deadline.

An executable court decision has already concluded this dispute - and yet Orban pressed on national radio for an "alternative solution": he and the mayor of the municipality concerned consider offering more education but no money.

It is against Hungarians' "sense of justice" he says, that Roma students subject to segregation "receive significant sums of money without doing any work".

The state fails to comply with the law - and we have yet to see if the plaintiffs can get their lawful dues.

Members of another vulnerable group have also recently found that their legal rights may be no more than a sham against the Hungarian state.

Prisoners throughout Hungary have long been detained in conditions that the European Court of Human Rights has consistently held to be in violation of prisoners' right against degrading treatment.

In fact, Orban's government introduced a new domestic procedure for related compensations exactly to prevent related complaints from routinely reaching and winning at the Strasbourg court.

Now he called to suspend the payment of these compensations, as in his view, prisoners and their helpers "abuse" this right and should not be unfairly rewarded.

More questions, no money

The government has in fact issued a resolution which calls the minister of justice to "suspend payments up until the latest possible date allowed by law". But what does that mean? Are only payments that were not yet due suspended? (Did the state ever pay before the deadline anyway?) Is that what all the show was about?

Of course, the resolution also calls for revising regulation. Detainees can't know what to expect, and that's part of the game. But good faith and legal certainty should not be expected: the government is playing around with the rights of people locked up in degrading conditions.

In both cases, by defying and juggling with its legal obligations, the Hungarian state denies the rule of law to its most vulnerable.

To them, in Orban's Hungary, there is simply no law.

It no longer matters what is on the statute books, and in whose favour courts rule. Unlawful behaviour—just like the unethical, the outrageous, or the unseemly - may be seen in a negative light but it attracts no special concern.

Law becomes just one among the many systems of competing norms—moral convictions, religious standards, or even rules of taste—shared within your broader or narrower community.

But so degraded, law no longer allows conflicts to be settled or enables parties to move beyond their disputes. Where equal and humane treatment cease to be matters of law respected and enforced, the most vulnerable are left to the whims of politics, a realm in which no solution is final and everyone's life is always up for grabs.

In Orban's Hungary, a single person's racist outbursts, thinly disguised as a 'sense of justice', can decide what we as a people may do or owe to our fellow citizens.

Once we have reached this stage, it is preposterous to talk about "risks" to the rule of law. If EU institutions refuse to see the facts for what they are, they are hurting Hungary's - and some of Europe's - most vulnerable.

Author bio

Attila Mráz is a fellow-in-residence at Harvard University's E. J. Safra Center for Ethics, conducting research in legal and political theory and political ethics. He previously worked as head of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union's Political Liberties Project.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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