Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hungary's Challenge to Secularism

In case you had not noticed, Hungary has a whopper of a new constitution that is giving the European Union and other international organizations something to think (and gripe) about. Critics call the text's reference to Christian heritage and its emphasis on strong families a dangerous blast from the past. A debate in the civil liberties committee of the European Parliament has been scheduled for next week and it promises to be quite acrimonious.

But Hungary's popular ruling parties, who famously drafted most of the document on an iPad, are convinced they are moving forward from the outdated, self-centered secularist ideologies that – look around! they say – are leading societies to a cultural, demographic and economic dead end. The future, if there is to be one, lies in promoting human dignity and economic responsibility.

“Hungary can be said to have rejected the post-modern model of society,” the Strasbourg-based European Centre for Law and Justice wrote last week in a memorandum on the new Hungarian Constitution. The Central European nation is not alone, the report notes, in distancing itself from the relativistic, anti-Christian and anti-family ideas that have come to dominate European policymaking in recent decades, but which conflict with many people's understanding of human rights, social welfare and national identity.

The Parliament in Budapest adopted the new Fundamental Law of Hungary on April 18 by a vote of 262 to 44. President Pal Schmitt endorsed it a week later to take effect from the start of 2012.

After a preamble that proudly “acknowledges the role that Christianity has played in preserving our nation”, the constitution proceeds, among other things, to declare human life worthy of protection from the moment of conception, define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, urge protection of the institution of the family “as the basis for survival of the nation”, prohibit “practices aimed at eugenics”, ban human trafficking, espouse protection of the environment and biodiversity, and set strict limits on the level of the national debt.

Ideology and democracy

Not everyone is edified or convinced by this act of moral leadership on the part of the country currently holding the EU's rotating presidency. Amnesty International expressed deep concern that the new Hungarian Constitution “violates international and European human rights standards”, in particular, “the rights of women and girls” to have abortions, the rights of same-sex couples “to marry” and “found a family”, and the rights of lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transvestites to be explicitly named in constitutional bans on discrimination. The rights group's four-page statement only dedicates a couple of sentences to concerns about one provision not linked to gender or sex -- Hungarian courts would be allowed to give non-parole life sentences for some prisoners.

These and other complaints have also been voiced within some EU institutions, especially by members of the European Parliament. The Council of Europe last month sent experts to Budapest to explore details of the constitution and prepare a report for the body's Parliamentary Assembly in June. Some question the legitimacy of the process by which the Fundamental Law was drafted. Prime Minister Viktor Orban's center-right Fidesz party and its coalition partners, the Christian Democrats, hold a two-thirds majority in parliament, which allowed them to adopt the constitution without any opposition support. Critics accuse the government of an authoritarian bent, especially in light of a media law it promoted which is seen by many as overly restrictive. The new constitution is one more example of this trend, they say. There are also claims that the government's patriotic rhetoric masks nationalistic intentions and that it is lax about protecting minorities like the Roma and migrants.

In an assessment earlier this month of developments in Hungary the Population Research Institute, a US-based human rights research group, takes note of the potential civil liberties issues but concludes that “while the new constitution may not be perfect, it is the best on the European continent right now.”

The government, for its part, says its massive election victory in April 2010 was a mandate for radical action to purge Hungarian society from remaining communist-era influences, reclaim the country's historical identity and values, and complete its transition to a modern democracy. And indeed, voters seem satisfied. The latest poll projects the ruling alliance would get 56 percent of the vote support if elections were held now, enough to retain its two-thirds majority in parliament. A distant second place, with just 18 percent of votes, would go to the Socialist Party. More than a third of respondents in the survey named Orban as Hungary's best prime minister since the end of communism in 1990, expressing particular satisfaction with his ability to defend Hungary's interests in the European arena.

Not alone

In fact, many European countries seem increasingly keen to defend their own identity, values and interests against “post-modern” impositions by international institutions and lobby groups. MercatorNet wrote in 2009 about a new Lithuanian law prohibiting public dissemination of information aimed at promoting non-heterosexual relations. The European Parliament condemned the law as discriminatory and proposed sanctions. Lithuania appealed to the European Court of Justice, which ultimately agreed that the European Parliament had overstepped the bounds of its competence and intruded into a democratic country’s legislative sovereignty.

Several recent cases at the European Court of Human Rights are also quite illustrative. An obvious example is the Italian crucifix case (Lautsi v. Italy), in which 21 European states backed Italy's ultimately prevailing stand that the display of crucifixes in public schools does not violate anyone's human rights. In a June 2010 ruling, the Court upheld Austria's right “to restrict access to marriage to different-sex couples”. In December 2010, it refused to overrule restrictions on abortions in Ireland. In January of this year, the Court judged that Switzerland did not have to ensure that a sick person wishing to commit suicide could obtain a lethal substance to be able to end his life without pain. Currently the Court is preparing to rule on whether Austria can legitimately ban ova donation by third parties for use in artificial insemination. And in another pending case, Poland is fighting a demand that it guarantee prenatal screening at a mother's request for purposes of deciding whether or not to have an abortion.

Through such legal challenges, countries are forcing a return to reasoned argumentation and universal principles of law, rather than ideological rhetoric as the basis for social policies. In consequence, both national and international institutions gradually are recognizing, as the European Centre for Law and Justice puts it, that “secularism is one 'belief' among many and... is not the obligatory pattern of the future Europe,” and – as more broadly evidenced by Hungary's new Constitution – that “the postmodern model of society is no longer compulsory in Europe.”

Bryan P. Bradley is an American-born freelance writer based in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he has lived and worked since 1994. He has reported on economic, political and cultural issues in the Baltic region for a number of international news agencies, including Bloomberg and Reuters.

Source:  MercatorNet

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