COVID-19 and Human Rights: Interview with 1995 Laureate András Biró

News 12.06.2020

Earlier this year, the world watched as the Parliament in Hungary, under the pretext of COVID-19 crisis, adopted a draconian emergency law, which allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree. Today, while the emergency law has apparently been revoked, we caught up with 1995 Right Livelihood Award Laureate András Biró for more insights. 

Since 2010, Hungary has been governed by right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Orbán.  Throughout these years, the government failed to respect the rule of law and human rights, began restricting civic space, supporting smear campaigns against independent journalists and curbing academic freedom – all of this accompanied by xenophobic rhetoric.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Orbán was called by some the “EU’s first dictator,” after the Parliament adopted, on March 30th, an emergency law allowing him to suspend laws, bypass Parliament and adopt decrees on an unlimited basis. Furthermore, journalists and activists who criticised him could be sentenced to up to five years in prison under the pretext of spreading false information. This caused much debate within the European Union, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressing deep concerns over the situation in Hungary.

While the law has now been revoked and COVID-19 measures are being eased, we reached out to András Biro, 1995 Right Livelihood Award Laureate, to understand what the situation is now like in the country. Biro received the Award, along with the Hungarian Foundation for self-reliance, which he founded in 1990, for their resolute defense of Hungary’s Roma minority and effective efforts to aid their self-development. Now 95 years old, he answered our questions with the assistance of his friend Professor Boldizsar Nagy.

What is the present situation in your country and what are the major concerns?​ 

The situation in Hungary underwent several major changes and at the moment of writing these answers (3 June 2020), the measures are much more relaxed than in the period of severe restrictions. But even then, the lockdown was not complete, people could go to work, shop, and pursue recreational activities.

Extreme measures were adopted in respect of international travel, and their relaxation is going very slowly. Citizens without an EU permanent residence card could not return at all, and even now there are serious hurdles in regard to nationals of most of the countries of the world. (Essentially an individual application has to be submitted and it is in the discretion of the deputy police chief to allow or deny entry.)

Was the right to health guaranteed during the peak of the crisis? 

In general, there were no major hindrances in the right to access to health infrastructures. As a matter of fact, the right was never challenged, just the logistics were not clear in the first weeks. People could not be tested on their own will and if no serious symptoms were shown they were not tested. After the first few weeks, the situation normalized, especially once it became clear that the pandemic will be almost two orders of magnitudes smaller than expected in the beginning.

How is the right to access sources of information fulfilled?  

The landscape is Janus-faced. On the one hand, the government holds press briefings broadcasted live every day, reports about the new infections, protective measures, and other developments. On the other hand, they retain full control over data. Hospitals, municipalities or any other stakeholder must not give out any information. So, for weeks, the territorial distribution of the infections was not communicated, all the questions notwithstanding. At those on-line press conferences, the respondents ignore as many questions as they wish, especially as they have to be submitted beforehand, so the audience only hears the answers and may not know how many remained unanswered.

Information related to a number of core issues is almost impossible to collect, especially – again – in respect of crossing the international borders. Certain nationalities and certain travel purposes may be exempted from the restrictions but that is decided on an ad hoc basis, frequently without any easily accessible written description of the decision.

…and what about freedom of expression? Is the law on “distorted facts” implemented?

Freedom of expression is under serious threat, as on 29 March the Parliament adopted Act XII of 2020, that entered into force on 31 March 2020 and – among other measures – the Penal Code introducing a new form of the crime “scaremongering.” Section 337 para (2) of the Penal Code threatens with a prison sentence extending from one year to five years anyone who “during the term of a special legal order utters or publishes before the public at large a statement one knows to be false or with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity in a way which is capable of hindering or foiling the effectiveness of the containment effort”. That rule obviously has a chilling effect especially as after its entry into force local opposition politicians have been subjected to criminal investigation for Facebook posts. (In the end, no criminal charge was raised against them). Over 100 such procedures have been started by the end of May but no news of actual sentencing has emerged yet.

As more and more countries talk about “contact tracing” there are some serious concerns over data protection, what is the situation like in Hungary? 

There are serious shortcomings in the protection of personal data. Government Decree 46 of 2020, adopted very early, on 16 March, entitled the Minister for Information and Technology to acquire any data needed for the fight against the virus. (Section 10 of the decree). Government decree No 83 of 2020 adopted on 3 April provided access to all anyone’s health-related data to the so-called “Operative Corps”, the ad hoc central body overseeing the measures against the pandemic. Government Decree 179 of 2020 (published on 4 May) seriously curtails the right of anyone to obtain information on whether her/his personal data are being used, to what extent, and how. In fact, until the end of the emergency situation, no inquiry on personal data protection has to be answered to. The Government decree also extends the duty to respond to an inquiry for public data from 15 days to 45 days – which makes journalistic inquiries meaningless.

No data protection could translate to serious discriminatory practices against some groups of the population. Have some measures been taken to avoid this?  

No formal measures against discrimination related to the pandemic can be observed. However, one may note that all the government measures aimed at alleviating the economic impacts of the partial lockdown and the economic recession, in general, are offering relief to the middle class and the entrepreneurs. People laid off or people who had already been unemployed at the start of the crisis and now became deprived of their precarious ad hoc sources of income as day workers, get no direct assistance.

In your opinion, what could be the contribution of the international community, including the Right Livelihood Foundation, to raise awareness and react to such risk? 

  • It ought to be stressed that no individual state answers can appropriately address a pandemic. Response by definition must be global and entails a suspension of the usual industrial property rights: any discovery – whether of a vaccine, of an effective medicine or of better procedures – ought to be available globally, without licensing by the intellectual property owner and without any licence fee. Costs of the inventions ought to be born by the international community contributing to funds established or extended for this purpose.
  • As any crisis, this crisis should also be used as an opportunity for example in developing a fundamentally new approach to tourism, budget flights and mobility, as well as to consumption for its own sake. We should get closer to a  global green deal, including, but not limited, to measures mitigating climate change.
  • In many countries, the crisis hits the poor in an unproportionate measure. Their plight must be reduced by substantive transfers from the more affluent segments of the society.

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