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Hungary president signs new constitution into law amid rights concerns

Hungarian President Pal Schmitt signed into law [press release] a controversial new constitution [text, PDF, in Hungarian] on Monday, amid concern from civil society leaders and opposition politicians that the document contravenes European human rights principles. According to a statement [text] released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website], the new constitution "enshrines discrimination," and jeopardizes the rights of people with disabilities, women and LGBT people. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission [official website] also released an opinion [text, PDF] criticizing the manner in which Hungary went about getting the constitution approved. Although the commission was asked to comment on the constitution prior to its approval, it was unable to do so because it did not get the document in time. The constitution introduces several changes, including a debt ceiling where the country's debt cannot exceed 50 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP); a reform of the Fiscal Council, giving the group the right to veto the budget and dissolve parliament for failure to pass an annual budget by the end of March; a definition of marriage as a union between man and woman; and a statement that the life of a fetus begins at and should be protected from conception. The constitution also includes a new preamble [text, in Hungarian], that condemns the communist and socialist climate in Hungary that existed from 1944 to 1990 and solidifies democratization that began 20 years ago.

The National Assembly of Hungary [official website, in Hungarian] approved [statement, in Hungarian] the new constitution last week by a margin of 262-44 and one abstention, and European lawmakers have already sought EU review [JURIST reports] of the document. Members of the country's socialist party (MSZP) [official website, in Hungarian] and green liberal political party (LMP) boycotted the vote [Reuters report]. The measure was supported by and passed as a result of the ruling Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ) [official website, in Hungarian], which has controlled a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly since 2010. Other laws passed by the FIDESZ-led parliament have garnered controversy as well. In February, the government agreed to change its controversial media law following negotiations between Hungarian and EU representatives [JURIST reports]. The law created the National Media Communications Authority (NMHH) [official website, in Hungarian], which controls private television and radio broadcasters, newspapers and online news sites. Under the law, the government could fine broadcasters more than 700,000 euros and newspapers and news websites roughly 90,000 euros if their coverage is deemed unbalanced or immoral by the NMHH, made up of members loyal to FIDESZ. The law was approved in December 2010 and went into effect in January amid protests from members of the media, other European governments as well as Amnesty International [advocacy website], which urged Hungary to amend the law [JURIST report] because it curtails freedom of expression.

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