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Hungary must revoke amendment threatening judicial independence – UN rights chief

Credit: OHCHR
Credit: OHCHR

Hungary must revoke amendment threatening judicial independence – UN rights chief

The top United Nations human rights official today urged the Hungarian Government to revoke a constitutional amendment that threatens the judiciary’s independence and endangers the country’s system of checks and balances.

“Hungary should seek to maintain high standards of human rights protection,” said High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. “Our view is that this effectively undermines the independence of judges, which is essential for the protection of human rights.”

In March, the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law (constitution) was adopted by the Hungarian Parliament without proper public discussion on issues that may affect the population’s human rights, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Last week, an advisory panel of the Council of Europe issued a critical report on the amendment, saying it “perpetuates problems of the independence of the judiciary, seriously undermines the possibilities of constitutional review in Hungary and endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

The panel, known as the Venice Commission, said the Fourth Amendment had provisions that contradicted Hungary’s basic law and European standards. The Commission is the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters.

“We welcome the Venice Commission’s opinion which confirms the concerns we expressed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted in March,” Ms. Pillay 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.”

Ms. Pillay said she shared the concerns of the Venice Commission on the independence of judges, noting that the 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.

The amendment also upholds the President’s right to reassign cases to a different court – a provision that was previously adopted as a transitional measure and was subsequently struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.

In its report, the Venice Commission 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,” Ms. Pillay 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.”

The Hungarian Government is planning a further amendment in the autumn in response to some of the criticism of the Venice Commission and the European Commission. However, Ms. Pillay said “at this point, these concessions appear very minor,” and urged the Government to address seriously all of the issues raised over the last three years by international human rights mechanisms, including the Venice Commission.