European rights body calls on Hungary to suspend laws on NGOs, universities

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly has called on Hungary to suspend a debate in the country’s parliament of bills which tighten rules on non-governmental organizations and foreign universities.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks up during a plenary session at the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels, Belgium April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

The two bills, drafted by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government, have drawn strong protests at home and abroad.

The European Union opened a case against Hungary on Wednesday over the law on foreign universities, which targets a university in Budapest founded by the liberal U.S. financier George Soros.

Orban has advocated an “illiberal democracy” and strong national governments within the EU, which he says are necessary to preserve the European way of life in the face of migration.

His views are at odds with the liberal views promoted by Soros.

Orban has also accused NGOs funded by Soros and operating in Hungary of promoting illegal migration, with what he said were paid political activists serving foreign interests.

The bill debated in the Hungarian parliament would require non-governmental organizations with foreign donations of at least 7.2 million forints to register with authorities and declare themselves as foreign-funded.

NGOs have said this would stigmatize them.

“The Assembly agrees that NGOs must be transparent about their sources of funds, but cannot accept the allegation that civil society organizations serve foreign interest groups, rather than the public interest,” the Assembly of the Council of Europe said after adopting a resolution.

The 47-member Council of Europe is separate from the European Union.

It said it was concerned about the lack of internal public consultation on the draft, the gravity of the sanctions on NGOs if they do not comply with the new rules, and the fact that the rules would not apply to all NGOs.

Orban’s critics say the move against CEU and NGOs is part of his broader push to stifle dissenting voices and put independent institutions - including the judiciary, media and NGOs - under closer government control.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Angus MacSwan