On 15 June 2021, the Hungarian Parliament passed Act no. LXXIX of 2021 on stricter action against paedophile offenders and the protection of children. The amendments on protecting children – also known as as the “propaganda law” – aim to shield minors from any content on homosexuality and gender diversity. This is in clear violation of international human rights standards and EU law – as concluded in an earlier blogpost.
Although the government attempted to control the discussion, arguing that the propaganda law did not pursue a homophobic or transphobic agenda and that the rights of LGBTQI people are not curtailed, the law was received with unprecedentedly harsh criticism. For instance, ILGA-Europe appealed to the EU to take action as it can no longer turn “a blind eye to the ongoing legislative attacks […] against the human rights and fundamental freedoms of LGBTI people in Hungary”. And EU officials have not remained silent this time: for example, the adoption of the law was called a “shame” and it was subject to an unusually heated debate in the European Council.
This post analyses the Hungarian government resolution adopted on 6 July “on the rude and anti-democratic attacks against Hungary”, and interrogates how the critiques are translated to the voters in the internal discussions. The domestic discourse is framed as a battle between the sovereign Hungarian government who merely aims to protect children and the European Union that tries to restrict the parents’ rights on the basis of ideological considerations. Human rights arguments are dismissed as a form of Western indoctrination in this conversation.
The government’s defence
The coordinated narrative echoed by members of the Hungarian government exclusively focuses on children in educational settings. They emphasize parents’ prerogative to educate their children according to their own beliefs, without external influence, repeating the same phrase used last year in the controversy over a fairy tale collection depicting non-traditional families: “Leave our children alone”.
The government’s rhetoric rejects that the issue is about homosexuality. Conveniently, its members do not address the other parts of the law, outlawing the promotion or display of homosexuality and gender diversity in the media, commercial advertising, and the total ban through the Child Protection Act and the Act on the Protection of Families, which contain the same provision. The government fails to reflect on the inconsistency that the latter practically prohibits parents from showing their children a movie, for example, in which same-sex families appear, since that would certainly constitute display if not promotion of homosexuality and gender diversity. If asked to specify what is covered by the promotion of homosexuality, no definition is provided. Thus, the message conveyed by the government is plain and simple: no interference with children’s education is welcome. The vague and overly broad formulation of the text only allows to speculate about the role of parents, contrary to the government’s contention, the law fails to address that.
The more sophisticated, human rights-based criticism coming both from domestic and international actors, including EU leaders, was not countered on their merits. Instead, a government resolution was passed on 6 July in response to the “harsh and anti-democratic statements” that “crossed a red line”. It is not addressed by the government what is deemed anti-democratic in this context. The recurring rhetoric of ‘red lines’ is no coincidence: The original law focusing on pedophile offenders was drafted because a ‘red line’ was crossed, when in 2020, the former Hungarian ambassador to Peru was convicted for storing 19.000 pornographic pictures of children on his computer. Also, Hungary has been accused of having crossed the ‘red line’ with the adoption of the propaganda law by members of the European Council.
The resolution appears as a desperate attempt to control the discussion. Cabinet members repeatedly emphasized that the law was being misunderstood, and the critics exclusively relied on second-hand information disseminated by Soros-run organizations (as civil society organizations opposing governmental actions are casually labelled in Hungary). This position permeated the pro-government press as well. Nevertheless, the government has clearly miscalculated the public reaction to the law: it was not only condemned by EU leaders, who are generally critical of the rule of law backsliding in Hungary. The joint statement arguing that the law constitutes a “flagrant form of discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression” was also signed by leaders who have had a neutral or even friendly relationship with Orbán, or who themselves cannot be proud of their human rights record with regard to LGBTQI people (e.g. Lithuania). Moreover, somewhat surprisingly, a recent representative public poll confirmed that voters in Hungary do not endorse the government’s approach: the majority of respondents believes that it fully or partially restricts the rights of LGBTQI people. The results suggest that an ‘internal enemy’, people they may personally know, resonates differently with Orbán’s voters than an unseen one like migrants, and the usual scapegoating tactic ultimately fails.
Human rights arguments as hate speech
The driving force behind the resolution is the Orbán government’s genuine indignation over the outcry surrounding the law. It uses an extremely defensive tone and seeks to characterize every criticism as a groundless attack on democracy, sovereignty, and the honour of Hungary. The resolution emphasizes that “[h]ate speech against Hungary is also forbidden”. Although the text does not specify what exactly constitutes hate speech in this context, it unquestionably addresses the statements that were raised at EU level. This is corroborated by the fact that the target audience is “political actors in the European Union”. These actors’ impugned critical remarks were primarily grounded in human rights and fundamental values entrenched in EU law.
It was argued that the law stigmatizes sexual and gender minorities and constitutes discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation. Members of the European Council further emphasized that the law fuels hate, intolerance and increases the risk of suicide among LGBTQI children. The government thus deems these allegations of non-compliance with human rights standards hateful, framing the issue as a battle with Brussels, which is perfectly in line with the ‘freedom fighter’ language emblematic of the current leadership. It allows them to divert attention from their serious human rights violations and completely removes the fundamental rights discussion from the domestic discourse.
Brussels is blamed – not for the first time – for acting as a colonizing power, exhibiting superiority that needs to be fought with all available means. EU law, continues the resolution, is used “for daily ideological battles”; human rights are the weapons applied in this war of ideologies. Since 2010, the government often invoked ‘gender ideology’ either to block instruments advancing women’s rights and gender equality, or to reject criticism on curtailing LBTQI rights. The resolution mirrors the usual strategy of the government: human rights concerns are dismissed with arguments couched in populistic, scientifically unsound clichés.
The resolution also refutes the idea that the list of common European values and basic rights is a “menu” from which everyone “can arbitrarily pick and choose” the ones “dear to their hearts”; for example, putting emphasis on certain rights while disrespecting other values, such as national sovereignty. But in the next sentence, the government does exactly that: it showcases the rights of “indigenous national minorities”, respect for “constitutional sovereignty and independence” of the member states, “the right of communities to self-determination” and the rights of the child and the duty of protection of children as non-optional. The government’s commitment to the protection of national minorities, in particular to the rights of Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, is reflected in the priorities set for its presidency of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers; the first level conference it organized addressed the challenges of national minorities. However, the wording of the resolution unequivocally suggests that some minorities are more important than others: sexual and gender minorities do not benefit from the same heightened attention. The hypocrisy of the Hungarian government is further evidenced by the recent legislative changes detrimentally affecting the Roma community: in response to the damages awarded for students in segregated schools in violation of equal protection, the Civil Code was amended to limit remedies to in-kind compensation instead of pecuniary damages (a formal letter of notice was sent to the government by the European Commission on 9 June 2021).
The resolution recalls that “we, Central Europeans know well what it is like when the state party, or the dictatorial system or the law-enforcement it operates wants to raise children instead of their parents”, and “we do not allow the self-appointed apostles of liberal democracy” to do so. When have human rights become a tool of ‘colonization’ and dictatorship? This dangerous rhetoric needs to be sanctioned at all levels, to prevent further damage to the affected communities who have found themselves in the middle of a power battle between the government and the European Union. Orbán’s claim that “the state not only guarantees the rights of homosexuals but actively protects them” cannot to be reconciled with the legal rampage his government committed against LGBTQI persons in the past two years.