Vona v Hungary

Facts of the case

The applicant, Gábor Vona, was the chairman of the Magyar Gárda Egyesület (Hungarian Guard Association) (‘Association’), founded by members of the political party Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary). The Association, soon after it was founded in May 2007 founded the Magyar Gárda Mozgalom (Hungarian Guard Movement) (‘Movement’). Guardsmen of the Movement wore military uniforms, including armbands similar to those of Arrow Cross officers responsible for Hungary’s ‘reign of terror’ of 1944-1945. Guardsmen held intimidating military-style rallies throughout Hungary, particularly targeting villages with large Romani populations. Much of their rhetoric centred around protecting ethnic Hungarians from so-called ‘Gypsy criminality’.

Responding to these activities, in December 2007, the Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office initiated proceedings for the dissolution of the Association. It considered that the Movement had no legal personality and that the Movement was anyway a branch of the Association, this being relevant because one part of the Association’s defence throughout proceedings in Hungary and at the European Court of Human Rights was that the Association and the Movement were separate entities. The Hungarian court did not hold with these arguments, or with the Association’s argument that there was no harm in their activities anyway. The Association was dissolved by a decision of December 2008. That decision was appealed by Mr Vona, but eventually upheld by the Hungarian Supreme Court in December 2009, the reasons being that the Association was involved in paramilitary parading in uniforms and military formations, intimidating the Romani population of small villages throughout Hungary.

Mr Vona complained to the European Court of Human Rights that the dissolution of the Association violated his rights under Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

ERRC involvement

On 11 July 2012, the ERRC submitted a third party intervention to the European Court of Human Rights (‘Court’), which addresses attitudes towards racism in democratic society, discrimination against Roma, particularly in Hungary, and the obligation of states to protect their Romani minorities.

Findings

The European Court of Human Rights, in its judgment of 9 July 2013 found that Mr Vona’s rights under Article 11 of the ECHR had not been violated, that to say the dissolution of the Hungarian Guard (Association and Movement) did not contravene the European Convention of Human Rights. A large part of the Court’s reasoning was based largely on the harm done to the vulnerable Roma minority by the activities of the Hungarian Guard, even though it noted that no physical violence done.

The Court found that the case was admissible, despite the Government’s arguments that the application constituted an abuse of rights under Article 17 of the ECHR (see judgment paras. 33-39), essentially distinguishing between the Court’s earlier jurisprudence on abuse of rights being primarily in respect of Article 10 (freedom of expression), rather than Article 11, on which Mr Vona relied.

 Article 11 of the ECHR provides that:

‘1.  Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

2.  No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the state.’

The Court found that there had been a restriction on Mr Vona’s Article 11 rights, but that that restriction was prescribed by law and could be seen as pursuing the aims of public safety, the prevention of disorder and the protection of the rights of others.

However the Court carefully examined the question of whether the interference – that is dissolving the Association – was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ as required by Article 11(2). In this the Court found that:

i) although most of the Court’s earlier findings in respect of Article 11 were in cases involving political parties, social organisations are also capable of interfering with democracy ‘if a sufficiently imminent prejudice to the rights of others undermines the fundamental values upon which a democratic society rests and functions. One of such values is the cohabitation of members of society without racial segregation, without which a democratic society is inconceivable.’ (judgment, para. 57);

ii) as a matter of fact, ‘the activities and expressions of the Movement relied on a race-based opposition of the Roma minority to the ethnic Hungarian majority’ (judgment, para. 62);

iii) the activities of the Hungarian Guard amounted to the intimidation of the Romani minority, taking into account the historical context, the visually striking imagery of the Hungarian Guard with its implied threat of paramilitary violence, the choice of venue for rallies, the fact that Roma were a ‘captive audience’ during rallies (that is they were effectively trapped in their homes), the repetition of organised rallies and the well-documented fact that Roma are a vulnerable minority in Hungary (judgment, paras. 63-70);

iv) the fact that rallies themselves were not individually banned did not undermine the decision to dissolve the Hungarian Guard, as part of the nature of the intimidation was the repetition of the rallies and that dismantling the organisational backdrop was necessary to stop the rallies taking place (judgment, paras. 71-72).

The concurring opinion of Judge Pinto de Albuquerque underlines the importance of deciding this case in the context of an international obligation to criminalise racist speech, the special protection under Article 14 accorded to Roma by the Court and the ‘scourge’ of racism (particularly anti-Romani and anti-Semitic) in contemporary Hungary.

Timeline

  • December 2007: Budapest Chief Prosecutor’s Office lodges a court action seeking the dissolution of the Association
  • December 2008: Budapest Regional Court dissolves the Association
  • December 2009: Hungarian Supreme Court upholds the Regional Court’s decision
  • June 2010: Gábor Vona applies to the ECtHR claiming violation of his rights under Article 11 of the ECHR (freedom of assembly and association)
  • March 2012: case communicated to the Hungarian Government
  • July 2012: ERRC submits third party intervention to the ECtHR
  • July 2013: ECtHR chamber decides that Mr Vona’s rights have not been violated

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