Human rights and the new patriotism in Hungary

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty addresses students at the Central European University in Hungary on 11 October 2017 

It is good to be here in Hungary, in the very heart of Europe, enjoying the hospitality for which Hungarians are justifiably famous. Whether with Nobel Prizes, scientific breakthroughs, or of course Rubik’s Cube, Hungary has historically packed a big punch in many ways.

It is especially good to be here in the Central European University. I am glad to have the opportunity to express some solidarity with you at a difficult time for this important institution.

Hungary – and the CEU itself – today sits at a juncture which will shape the future of Europe. That is why I am here today. To share some thoughts about the choices facing Hungary today, and about the future we want to choose.

The “new patriotism”

When we listen to the political pulse of Hungary, we hear that the country is in the very centre of a battle for the soul of Europe.

On one side of that struggle is a so-called “transnational elite” – a globalised, internationalist and liberal intelligentsia. It is big business, it’s the liberal media, it’s the bureaucrats of Brussels, it’s George Soros, it’s NGOs. It is the cabal working together to establish an elitist global agenda. Indeed, to quote Prime Minister Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” speech from 2014, I have little doubt he would see me speaking here as one of the “paid political activists who are attempting to enforce foreign interests”.

On the other side of the struggle is the ordinary, patriotic, traditional Christian working man (occasionally woman).

And caught in the middle are the mostly Muslim migrants seeking entry into Europe, unwitting agents of a plan to change the demographic face of Europe forever.

The elites are executing a plan to take away the most important thing the ordinary people have: their identity, their community, their rootedness.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

This is Prime Minister Orbán’s new European politics. A politics, as he said, “on the side of the patriots”. A proud patriotic illiberalism.

And where the Hungarian government has led, others have followed.

But this new patriotism has a dark side. It has a rapidly growing surveillance state, an alarming crackdown on the space available for independent voices, and an extraordinary callousness towards refugees, some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

I would like to begin with some thoughts about the main elements of the new patriotism. Then I will argue it is inadequate to the task, and explain why I believe human rights must be central to the future of Hungary.

I will start by saying there is nothing wrong with being proud of your country, being a proud Hungarian.

But the new patriotism which Prime Minister Orbán espouses is different. It is not patriotism but jingoism. It is fundamentally negative in the way it understands people.

There are two strands of the new patriotism which I will talk about: the security strand, and the values strand.

Security and identity

First of all, there is the security strand. Naturally every state has the responsibility to ensure the security of its citizens, and the right to secure its borders. There is nothing controversial about that.

But in the doctrine of Prime Minister Orbán we find the idea that the security of the nation is grounded in ethnic homogeneity.

Speaking in his Tusnádfürdő speech earlier this year, he said, “There is no strong culture without a cultural identity … there is no cultural identity in a population without a stable ethnic composition”.

The idea is this: ethnic homogeneity is the ultimate source of human security.

I alluded earlier to Rubik’s Cube. What we see here is something like a Rubik’s Cube theory of politics: that the colours must be lined up in an orderly way. That this is the natural state of things.

It is, I think, a bleak idea.

It makes homogeneity the controlling principle of society.

It is the idea that somehow our capability for solidarity with each other – and our ability to cohere together as a social structure – is governed by some biological principle of sameness.

We only have to look at the way this idea is manifested. Perhaps most starkly in the shipping containers on the border which cage some of the world’s most vulnerable people, victims fleeing the horrors of one of the most terrible conflicts in memory.

Compassion, tolerance and respect are thrown out in the name of a myth of purity.

When we talk about refugees, we need to get real about war. There is no Rubik’s Cube solution. Millions and millions of Syrians have had their lives threatened due to the civil war, in which President Assad’s forces, the armed group that calls itself Islamic State, and other parties to the conflict have committed war crimes on a major scale.

The women, men and children caged on Hungary’s borders are some of the victims of the very worst horrors the 21st century has seen.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

To paint these refugees as passive agents of a plot to destabilise Europe is a grievous and inexcusable twisting of reality.

Prime Minister Orbán’s idea of security as identity is manifested also in his government’s approach to counter-terrorism. This month a government survey has been circulated condemning Amnesty International’s defence of Ahmed H. He is a migrant from Syria who was convicted of terrorism after using a megaphone to ask that police communicate with refugees and migrants at the border, and after throwing three solid objects at police. These actions were interpreted as an attempt to force state authorities to allow the irregular entry of refugees and migrants into Hungary.

The terrorism charge is as extraordinary as it is outrageous. It is a manifestation of an ideological criminalisation of refugees and migrants, equating them to a threat to national security. Ahmed has effectively become the scapegoat of the government, which has invested heavily in labelling him as a terrorist and incriminating him.

Prime Minister Orbán’s doctrine of security is also manifested in the way that independent and critical voices are being silenced in Hungary today.

The Lex NGO – which Amnesty International is joining other organisations in opposing – is only the latest move in a sustained campaign against NGOs and the space for activism and criticism in Hungary.

Despite the narrative of Prime Minister Orbán and his claims that NGOs form part of a nefarious foreign cabal, we believe that NGOs – imperfect as they may be – are vital for a democratic society. And most importantly, that people have the right to form associations and operate NGOs.

There is no point at which security and human rights become an either/or. A strong state, a truly strong and effective state, is one which can both protect people’s security and protect their freedoms. When those freedoms are eliminated, what is there to defend? A strong state is one confident enough to respect differences and allow the voices of welcome to be heard.


It is fundamentally untrue to claim a single Hungarian culture. The country protects in law thirteen recognized national and ethnic minorities and enables their political participation.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

Second, there is the values strand of this new patriotism. This is the idea that the country cannot sustain a multiplicity of values frameworks. “Opposing ideologies and values cannot be simultaneously upheld, as they are mutually exclusive,” to quote the Prime Minister again. Instead, there is a binary choice. A choice, as Prime Minister Orbán presents it, between “traditional indigenous Christians and the incoming Muslim communities”.

So we have two sets of values playing against each other: the traditional Christian values of Hungary, and a supposed “migrant culture”. The homogenous Christian nation versus the homogenous culture of migrants.

This may seem compelling because it gives total moral clarity. One is authentic, the other is destabilising. And it is not only a neat idea, but it means the government is totally justified in keeping out refugees and migrants because that is what the people want. The people are fed up and fearful of the other, the foreigner.

It is hard to understand the concept of “migrant culture”, a grotesque oversimplification. But equally hard to understand is the idea of a homogenous and fixed Hungarian Christian culture. The attempt to manipulate identities is based on the mistaken idea that they are fixed and static.

It is fundamentally untrue to claim a single Hungarian culture. The country protects in law thirteen recognized national and ethnic minorities and enables their political participation.

And Hungary’s EU membership also allows free and easy settling for migrants from other countries in the bloc. Tens of thousands of students from abroad – like most of you – study here in various disciplines for years, enriching Hungarian society and its fabric. Just like Hungarians abroad strengthen the fabric of the countries they live in.

Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, and war

Pope Francis

Prime Minister Orbán often speaks of Hungary as a Christian nation. I am not competent to define or expound Christianity. But a faith which follows a man who started his life fleeing from persecution and growing up as a refugee in Egypt does not provide a strong ideological footing for building fences which keep refugees at bay.

If I could quote some tweets from Pope Francis:

“Let us share without fear the journey of migrants and refugees”

“Migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, and war”

Pope Francis – like clerical figures in Hungary – is at pains to deny the otherness of refugees and migrants.

It is difficult to see in that the idea of a Christian culture which must stand opposed to refugees and migrants. This binary simply does not stand true.

And it does not reflect real lived experience of people. Are Hungarians fundamentally racist? Are Hungarians people who cannot open their heart to others?

Perhaps one of the bleakest points of the doctrine of new patriotism is the idea that solidarity is surrender. It is not possible to show solidarity with those whose culture is different.

Against this pessimistic worldview, I see reasons to have faith in people and their generosity to others. We only need to look at the warm welcome from Greek islanders towards refugees struggling off boats at the end of perilous journeys which have taken the lives of far too many women, men and children.

We only need to see the way they have opened their lives to refugees. People who themselves have suffered economic hardship, who have every reason to fear that the government will not be able to support them. But the human instinct for solidarity is more powerful than fear.

The generosity of people stands as a living rebuke to the dismal idea of solidarity as surrender. It is outrageous that the Prime Minister condones violence when villagers intimidate and threaten an individual who dares to open up to the idea of hosting a few refugee families in his B&B so they, as anyone else, can take a village holiday.

The European attitudes survey of the Hungarian government found that 81% of EU nationals thought immigration to be a serious or very serious issue, and 59% believed that immigration changed the culture they lived in.

At Amnesty International, we commissioned our own global survey on attitudes towards refugees in 2016, which surveyed 27,000 people in 27 countries in all continents. It found that 80% of people would accept people fleeing war or persecution into their country. 66% of people said that their governments should do more to help refugees.

In August 2017, the World Economic Forum global survey of young people exposed just how far governments are out of touch with their attitudes. Strikingly in the USA, after months of attempts by President Trump to slam the door on refugees, 85% of young people said they would welcome refugees, 10% more than last year.

People do not want doors to be slammed. People’s generosity, people’s values, should give us hope. Values are not enhanced by ring-fencing them, seeking sterile isolation.

A reality check

Prime Minister Orbán says that the main question in Europe is this: “Will Europe remain the continent of the Europeans? Will Hungary remain the country of the Hungarians?”

That is a question about your identity which assumes the best case scenario is to preserve the status quo, to extend an idealised past into the future.

I would like to pose a different question to Hungarians and to Europeans. My question is – especially to you, the future of the country – what kind of society do you want Hungary and Europe to be?

Do you want it to be one in which organizations are effectively silenced for voicing politically unacceptable views? Where the media is cowed, civil society is crushed, and the space is occupied instead by the state?

Do you want it to be one where a man is sentenced for terrorism after using a megaphone to call on both sides for calm?

Do you want it to be one where Roma people face discrimination, segregated education, and massive inequality in the labour market?

Do you want it to be one where traumatised refugees fleeing war and persecution are locked in shipping containers on the margins and nobody offers them relief and assistance?

Do you want it to be one in which people are demonized, stripped of their dignity and denied justice?

If you want a different future, you need to go out and make it. Let me now turn to what kind of future that might be – and how you could make it.

Human rights: a tool of the transnational elites?

I have highlighted so far what I believe to be some of the key flaws in the doctrine of the new patriotism.

But I would now like to turn to an important insight which Prime Minister Orbán has often highlighted.

Have we built a world order where power is in the hands of people?

We have not. We must confront the truth that global systems which favour a transnational and cosmopolitan class of people have far too often failed to serve ordinary people.

The system of globalisation nurtured by governments and businesses has let down many millions of people around the world. They are people who suffer inequality, corruption, injustice and a dearth of opportunities. They are people who simply feel left behind.

This is true for the community of Indigenous People in Peru whose water supply is poisoned, whose children cannot concentrate at school for the toxic metals in their bodies. Whose activists in search of justice are suppressed and silenced by powerful and brutal interests.

It is true for the factory worker in the north of England who has lost his job and feels he cannot compete in a global race to drive down wages and the threat of automation. He is forced to try his way in the perilous uncertainty of the gig economy. He deserves adequate support from the state to secure decent work.

It is true for the Hungarian worker who is employed by a big corporation for much less than her Austrian neighbour for doing the same job, and she struggles to meet the basic needs of her household. She is suffering economic uncertainty, petty corruption and is struggling to feed her family.

We cannot simply sit in ivory towers and simply condemn leaders who give the wrong solutions to the anxieties, grievances and disquiet of millions of people left behind.

These problems are real. They demand a response. So how are we tackling them?

This is what human rights is about. It is about starting with the idea of the fundamental dignity and equal worth of every human being, every member of society, and protecting that for all it’s worth

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

There is a choice.

These problems can be confronted by the politics of fear, of blame. Leaders can choose to cast blame on external threats. They can say that you are right to feel anxious and fearful of outsiders. If things continue as they are, you won’t be safe, and you won’t be Hungarian. The elites, the forces of internationalism and the migrants will destroy you.

Leaders can choose to distract attention from the real economic hardships, from the real corruption, from the real inequalities, the real injustices, deflecting blame onto others.

They can perpetuate an identity politics based on fear and suspicion. It is a politics which leads ultimately to conflict, which in turns hardens people against each other. This is the spiral that led to the world wars which caused so much devastation only a few decades ago – the tragic crucible in which the human rights framework as we know it today was forged.

Or leaders can choose to take real action. Leaders can take as their starting point the idea of human dignity which needs to be fostered and protected. They can choose policy decisions which progressively realise people’s rights to work, to health, to education.

They can take meaningful action to ensure Hungarians and their families have access to healthcare. That they get the proper and timely treatment that so many in Hungary have sadly lacked. This is their right, and the government must fulfil that right.

They can protect the freedom to exchange ideas, protest and call for a better future.

They can hold the corrupt accountable.

This is what human rights is about. It is about starting with the idea of the fundamental dignity and equal worth of every human being, every member of society, and protecting that for all it’s worth.

Choosing a better way

Let me return briefly to the left-behind Hungarian woman, struggling to make ends meet. Is there really so much difference between her and the Syrian refugee caged on the border? Both of them are victims of cruel circumstances, excluded from control over their own destiny. Both are denied real power, real freedom.

Yet in Prime Minister Orbán’s Hungary, one must be pitted against the other. The welfare of one depends on the exclusion of the other.

But in reality, when people are pitted against each other, who wins? It’s not the person who is excluded or marginalised.

Hundreds of millions of euros – which the government desperately wants to reclaim from the EU – have been spent on feeding this antagonism by building fences. Yet nobody has benefitted from it. No Hungarian citizen has seen her or his rights realized through this aggressive xenophobic campaign. And it made Hungary into a darker place.

You are some of these privileged elites yourselves. And I want to call on you, with all the relative advantages you enjoy, to imagine a new future for Hungary and for Europe. To end the political discourse of negativity, and construct a different future.

And it must be a future in which there is no more exclusion for those who are powerless. A world in which both the factory worker and the refugee are treated with dignity. A world in which the future can be better than a static and idealised status quo. You must both envision a new and better world, and start to bring it about.

Thank you.