Jun 08, 2016

Hungarians deserve the same level of protection against terror that other Europeans enjoy

Yesterday, the Hungarian Parliament amended the Fundamental Law, our constitution, to allow the national assembly to declare a state of terrorism threat and grant temporary, extraordinary powers to the government.

Here are the important details to underline: declaring a state of terrorism threat requires the support of two-thirds of the attending MPs; a state of terrorism threat is temporary, lasting up to 15 days only, after which it can only be renewed by another vote in parliament; and, not least, the extraordinary powers granted to the government have similar precedents in Europe.

The discussion of these amendments has been going on for a while. In fact, it began in earnest in January, just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Back then, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made the case for the new legislation, saying that “the government has resources that it would use in order to reduce the level of terror threat, but the laws do not allow that.” 

“The most important thing in public life is the safety of the people,” the prime minister said at the time, “and we ask the Parliament’s support to give us these tools, which western European governments already have.”  

Parliament passed the amendment to the constitution with 153 yes votes, 13 no votes and one abstention (Hungary's Socialist Party didn’t bother to vote). It establishes a legal framework for Parliament, at the government's request, to declare a state of terrorism threat – again, with the support of two-thirds of parliament – for a fixed term of 15 days in the event of a significant or direct threat of a terrorist attack. The declaration of a state of terrorism threat authorizes the PM’s Cabinet to take extraordinary measures.

Among the extraordinary measures, the government may rule by decree, suspend certain laws at its discretion or expand the force of others. Specifically, extraordinary measures may include the authority to deploy military forces in cases where police and national security services aren’t enough. Curfews, tightened border controls, evacuations, the prohibition of public events, and heightened surveillance of the post and internet are also authorized by the amendment.

It's also important to note that the power to take "extraordinary" measures in response to other, very specific situations - like a natural disaster - already existed under Hungarian law. But prior to yesterday's amendment, it didn't exist in the case of a terrorist threat, so the change brings an addtion to the already existing rules.

Such measures have precedence in other countries, of course. For example, the Belgian government took additional security measures following the terrorist attacks in Paris and in Brussels. In such situations, the government of Belgium may deploy the military and limit the freedom of assembly. Further restrictions have been debated, including banning the use of pre-paid cellphones, banning the practice of religions that spread jihadism, and banning websites that disseminate hate speech. The previous governing coalition in Austria made it possible for the government to mobilize the military without authorization from the Parliament. In Austria, Croatia, France, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, as noted above, Belgium, existing laws already allow the government to mobilize the military to fulfill certain police roles. In the United States, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which answers to an Attorney General appointed by the president, has responsibility to respond to such crises and may request the help of the army. 

Some news outlets reported the amendment with typical sensation. “Disquiet as Hungary's parliament votes for new anti-terror powers,” wrote Deutsche Welle. Never mind that this is really no different than the special anti-terror laws we find in other European countries. Reporters can get away with that because, you know, it’s just Hungary.

But in step with increased policing and border controls and tough lessons learned from the terrorist attacks in Europe, the government feels strongly that security must remain a priority. This amendment simply closes a gap in the Fundamental Law by establishing the legal framework for temporary, extraordinary powers to pass to the government to better handle a threat of terrorism or possible terrorist attack. 

As Prime Minister Orbán himself has said, Hungarians deserve the same level of protection that other Europeans enjoy.