May 01, 2020 - Miklós Szánthó

Hungary Threatens the Rule of Law - Really? Again?

The World Justice Project thought it was a good time to issue another grave warning about the imminent death of Hungarian democracy at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Was this an example of independent experts sounding alarm bells or of ideologically motivated social engineering? Let us take a look at the vaunted World Justice Project.

The debate surrounding the rule of law in Hungary has been going on, with varying degrees of intensity, since 2010. We have seen reports in the European Parliament, the UN Human Rights Council has expressed concern, and even individual member states have written strongly worded letters in defense of democracy. Naturally, international rights advocacies and NGOs never cease to express their concern, individually and collectively. Most people are familiar with the work of Freedom House, Amnesty International or Transparency International; however, people might be less aware of the World Justice Project(WJP).

Well, the organization has been focusing on promoting the rule of law around the world since 2006. They have a flagship, annual conference called the World Justice Forum, and they offer regular reports on the global state of rule of law, democracy and human rights. Of course, their reporting clearly must have a downgrading of Hungary; where would the world be without this decade-old tradition? Indeed, for 2020, they report that Hungary is 60th out of 128 countries, lagging behind Rwanda and Mongolia when it comes to rule of law. Naturally, seven EU member states and Israel are missing from the report; nothing to see there when it comes to rule of law.

So, let us take a deeper look at these champions of democracy.

World Justice Project and Co.

WJP was founded by the American billionaire William H. Neukom, who had a spectacular run as a litigator for Microsoft and whose activities as a financier include a stint as the owner of the San Francisco Giants. Like many of his fellow billionaires, Neukom discovered the Samaritan urge after he’d reached the zenith of his business career. He has supported universities and is not just the founder but also the chairman of WJP. In this latter endeavor, he has been generously backed by his former business partners, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, leading international law firms and others. And some of these “others” are quite interesting.

The strategic partners of WJP include Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch and Avocats Sans Frontières, all of which espouse liberal causes such as abortion and migration, all in line with the views advanced by Karl Popper. They, naturally, enjoy close financial ties to George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with working towards liberal ends if one believes in them, but pretending to be “professional” and “neutral” while championing progressive causes is disingenuous and just plain wrong.

Professionalism above all? Not quite.

There are two problems immediately evident with WJP’s make-believe “professionalism”: First, they use standards and metrics to judge others they themselves constructed and defined. Second, they use what can only be described as a very fragile methodology.

Let us take their definition of the rule of law: “Effective rule of law reduces corruption, combats poverty and disease, and protects people from injustices large and small. It is the foundation for communities of justice, opportunity, and peace—underpinning development, accountable government, and respect for fundamental rights.” All sounds very nice, although people will have diverging views on what constitutes “justice” and “development.” This definition was provided to WJP by Juan C. Botero and Alejandro Ponce, who in their book Measuring the Rule of Law nevertheless concede that rule of law has no internationally accepted definition. Indeed, this definition, so generously contributed to WJP by the authors, sounds suspiciously similar to one offered by the founder, Mr. Neukom, back in 2007. Such a self-referential argument essentially shoots itself in the foot, and yet, it nevertheless allows Mr. Neukom to claim that the definition for rule of law used by WJP is “founded on internationally accepted criteria.”

While the above authors accept that rule of law will have local deviations, WJP deals only in universal principles, such as “accountability” and “just laws.” They also deploy nine factors, with innocent-sounding subfactors like “due process” and “effective enforcement of justice” that can be assigned values to create a set of indicators. But if you take a closer look, you will find, for instance, that they identify oversight of the executive branch by courts, ombudsmen and NGOs as a counter to state power – something that many would see as a power-grab by the “juristocracy.” In the classic case, oversight of the executive is exercised by the legislative branch and the judicial branch jointly, not by unelected NGOs and international organizations. Another typical peculiarity is that respect for “gender identity” forms a crucial element of WJP’s human rights metric. All in all, the indicators used by WJP are rooted in ideology and are not “objective” by any stretch of the imagination.

Social Engineering Masquerading as Methodology

WJP assigns values to these vaguely defined, ideologically based indicators by aggregating results from a survey of the general population of any given country and from “Qualified Respondent’s Questionnaires (QRQs)” completed by lawyers, experts and academics, taking each into account with an equal weight. This is already rather questionable as far as methodology goes, but it gets worse.

The small print reveals a lot of trickery. For instance, the surveys are only conducted in the three largest cities in any given country. Furthermore, WJP used polls from 2019 for just 10 of the 128 countries included, while it relied on polls from 2011-2018 for all others. In the case of Hungary, the 2020 WJP report uses 2018 polling by Ipsos in Budapest, Debrecen and Szolnok, with a sample size of 1,000; thus, it is not only clearly unrepresentative of the entire country but also clearly obsolete.

When it comes to the supposedly “expert opinion” represented by the QRQs, the picture is no less bleak. One of the typical questions is: “How likely is it that a migrant/homosexual detained person/victim might be at a disadvantage during a criminal process?” Respondents are asked to reply according to a scale from “highly likely” to “don’t know.” Clearly, such “how likely do you think...?” questions are wasted on experts, who you’d expect to expound on their views using objective, “scientific” argumentation. Surely, a simplistic “likely” or “unlikely” is far from satisfactory.

The whole notion of attempting to measure social phenomena using statistical tools developed for the natural sciences indicates a kind of professional jealousy on the part of sociologists of the methods available to their colleagues in the physics lab. And when lawyers deploy statistical tools to analyze subjective legal categories – including some that go beyond the legal realm – that are rooted in ideology and a specific worldview, this has all the signs of social engineering.

The Factor of Subjectivity

It is not just WJP as an organization in its entirety, but the compilers of the report in particular who have close ties to the ideology of Open Society. “Experts” from the Open Society Justice Initiative and Open Society Foundations contributed to it as “general advisors,” as did the people from Transparency International and Open Government Partnership among others, many of which are sponsored by one Open Society entity or another. Five of the ten named – and supposedly “neutral” – Hungarian experts who contributed to the report are well-known opponents of Hungary’s current government, and one is a regular participant in anti-government demonstrations.

In Conclusion

Of course, reports such as this one from WJP are a dime a dozen, and all they really do is rehash false information, misinterpretations or outright lies ad nauseum. They are mass-produced on the assembly lines of a single ideology. However, there is something nefarious in the way they use a systemic, circular, self-referential chain of people and entities to create maximum impact on a political level. Indeed, it is a recurring argument from NGOs, the mainstream press or even international and EU institutions that a political attack against Hungary is justified because it is based on what Freedom House, Amnesty International or one of their clones has already written. And progressive, political attacks against Hungary are mounting, to be sure.

Now, a new organization, the World Justice Project has joined the chorus. This is yet another organization that is intertwined with the ideology of Open Society on several levels and has internalized the practice of passing judgment based on the assumption of the universality of liberal values, suspect surveys, a shaky methodology and the opinions of hand-picked, liberal “experts.”


The author of this guest post is the director of the Center for Fundamental Rights.