Hungary’s Pivotal Role in the Global Network against Sexual & Reproductive Rights

17th December 2021

By Kata Balint

In ‘The Global Network Working to Curb the Rights of Women and Sexual Minorities’, we provided an overview of an international network of ultra-conservative organisations working to undermine and restrict sexual and reproductive health rights for women and LGBTQ+ people under the banner of ‘family values’. This Dispatch examines the specifics of the Hungarian organisations, events and actors most in connection with the greater international network.

Our findings show that high-level government figures and entities directly linked to the right-wing populist Fidesz government have been involved with the network for years, collaborating with well-known anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion organisations and actors. Several of these organisations explicitly echo the positions of the government and serve to legitimise hateful rhetoric and the Fidesz administration’s policy agenda.

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In recent years, the topic of sexual and reproductive health and rights has become contentious in Hungary. Official government communication on the matter has grown increasingly hostile towards LGBTQ+ people in particular, as well as women and those advocating for the rights of marginalised communities. This has translated into policy changes, including criminalising gender change; a constitutional amendment stating that only a “woman” can be the mother, a “man” is the father, and that marriage can only occur between “a woman and a man”; a tightening of rules for adoption by same-sex couples; and most recently, the Child Protection Law, which bans the “display and promotion of homosexuality” for children under 18.

With general elections only months away in April 2022, and Fidesz actively campaigning on curbing the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens, it is highly likely that rhetoric and policy efforts will intensify in the coming months. The first sign of this is that on the day of the election, a referendum will be held to support the Child Protection Law, with questions around whether sexual orientation workshops in schools should be held without parental consent and gender reassignment procedures should be promoted among children.

Novák, the protagonist

In Hungary, the pivot against these minority groups has been long in the making, spearheaded by two key Fidesz politicians: Katalin Novák, the Minister for Family Affairs; and Zoltán Balog, the former Minister for Human Capacities. For years, Novák and Balog have worked to put Hungary on the map of anti-LGBTQ+ and women’s rights efforts, and to establish relations with the global network of anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) actors.

Novák and Balog at the launch event of a pro-family book / Source: Katalin Novák’s Facebook page

Novák’s efforts can be traced back to 2015 and the formation of the Political Network for Values (PNfV). She sat on its Advisory Board and became the President of the organisation in 2019. The PNfV is  a transatlantic network of decision makers and political actors that describes itself as promoting the protection of human life from conception, marriage, family and religious freedom.

Representatives of notorious ultra-conservative organisations such as CitizenGO, World Congress of Families, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, Family Watch International, ADF International and the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM), mentioned in our first briefing on the network sit on PNfV’s Board of Directors, Advisory Board and Committee of Experts.

Additionally, the Honorary Chair of the organisation is Jaime Mayor Oreja, President of the One of Us Federation for Human Life and Dignity, a subdivision of Agenda Europe that states it was created to “guarantee the protection of human beings from conception” across the EU. One of Us also lists the prominent ultra-Catholic CitizenGO as one of its “members” on their website

PNfV is in the midst of organising its fourth ‘Transatlantic Summit’. The last of these summits was held in Bogotá, Colombia,  in 2019, and was sponsored by the Foundation for a Civic Hungary (the official foundation of the Fidesz party), alongside CitizenGO, the International Organisation for the Family and Family Watch International. This indicates that through the party foundation of Fidesz, public funds may have indirectly been used for the event. 

The fourth Transatlantic Summit was originally scheduled to be held at the Hungarian Parliament in November 2021, but was postponed to May 2022 due to the pandemic. Among the sponsors are the Prime Minister’s Office of Hungary, as well as Bethlen Gábor Fund Managing Company, a state funded organisation with the aim of aiding initiatives related to the government’s national policy strategy. These sponsorships transparently show the Fidesz government’s investment in, and support for, the network.

The sponsors of the fourth Transatlantic Summit / Source: The webpage of the Summit

Additionally, there is the possibility that the government has provided indirect financial support to PNfV. While information on PNfV’s funding is not publicly available, in 2020, the Hungarian government provided a €140,000 grant to an unnamed organisation “representing  conservative, traditional values” for the express purpose of cooperating with the Network. According to the government decree officiating the grant, the government considers it of paramount importance to contribute to the work of the unidentified organisation. 

The Budapest Demographic Summit

Another important initiative of Novák is the Budapest Demographic Summit, which has been held biannually since 2015 with the support of the Hungarian government. The 2017 Summit’s official website has since been taken down, limiting the information available, but web archive platforms allowed us to identify it as part of a larger series of events titled the Budapest Family Summit.

In addition to the Demographic Summit, the annual meeting of the World Congress of Families and the second European meeting of the One of Us Federation were part of the series. The Howard Center and the Hungarian Ministry of Human Capacities also took part in the organisation of these events, sponsored by CitizenGO, the International Organisation for the Family and the National Organization for Marriage. As such, the Budapest Family Summit is directly connected to the international network, with the explicit support of the Hungarian government. 

The 2019 Budapest Demographic Summit took a different direction. Instead of the involvement of well-known anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-women’s rights organisations, high-level politicians such as the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and then Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, were present. Bozena Borys-Szopa, former Polish Minister for Family, Labour and Social Policy; and Damares Regina Alves, Brazilian Minister for Women, Family and Human Rights; as well as Orbán also gave speeches at the event.

At the 2021 edition, there were even bigger names lined up. In addition to Vučić and Babiš, former Vice President of the United States Mike Pence was also present. Other prominent figures included Eric Zemmour, a French conservative writer, publicist and presidential candidate, who earlier claimed that all men are sexual predators and that the excessive power of women and LGBTQ+ people is ruining France; and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the niece of the far-right politician Marine Le-Pen and former prominent politician for her party.

It is worth noting that Maréchal-Le Pen is an ardent campaigner against abortion, gay marriage, the EU, and migration from ‘Muslim countries’. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, known primarily for his denial of the Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims perpetrated by Serbs during the South Slavic War, also gave a speech at the event. Lorenzo Fontana, the former Italian Minister for Family Affairs and Equal Opportunities and member of Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord, also attended. Fontana is known for his anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ stances as well as for being a avid believer in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Eric Zemmour and Katalin Novák at the Budapest Demographic Summit of 2021 / Source: Katalin Novák’s Facebook page

It is clear then that the Budapest Demographic Summit has become a biennial gathering of ultra-conservative and highly influential decisionmakers, politicians and individuals actively working to curb the rights of sexual minorities and women.

Hungarian organisations connected to the global network

The Center for Fundamental Rights

One of the main proponents of the network in Hungary is the Center for Fundamental Rights. Headed by Miklós Szánthó, it serves as a mouthpiece for the Fidesz government’s anti-LGBTQ+ messaging, both domestically and abroad. The Center has, for example, conducted a public opinion poll stating that “two-thirds of Hungarians reject the gender theory”; written a study on the European Commission’s push back to the ‘Child Protection Law’; and published books including The Gender Craze and The Criticism of Gender Theory. On its website, the Center states countering “today’s overgrown human rights-fundamentalism and political correctness” as one of its main goals.

Szánthó is frequently featured as an ‘expert’ in government-friendly media outlets, and often participates in related events , such as the III and IV Budapest Demographic Summits and the Political Network for Values’ IV Transatlantic Summit. Szánthó is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), the government-linked media conglomerate which oversees more than 500 outlets. 

The Center for Fundamental Rights is not only influential in Hungarian public discourse, but also seeks to leave its mark abroad through collaboration with other anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights entities. The Center signed a cooperation agreement in February 2021 with the Polish anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ organisation, Ordo Iuris. Through its close ties to the Polish ruling party PiS, Ordo Iuris played a major role in the restriction of abortion rights and has been linked to local governments’ establishment of “LGBTQ+-free zones” throughout the country in recent years. In October 2021, Italian, Czech and Slovakian organisations also joined their cooperation under the ‘Alliance for the Common Good’. According to their website, its main goals are to defend “the right to life at all stages of development” and to protect “the institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman”.

At the event of the establishment of the Alliance for Common Good / Source: The Center for Fundamental Rights’ Facebook page

Past activities involving the Center for Fundamental Rights

This is not the first time The Center and Ordo Iuris have worked together. They also collaborated, together with the Human Dignity Center (see below), in collecting signatures against the adoption of the Istanbul Convention in all Member States of the European Union, which aims to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. In April of this year, the Center co-organised the Geneva Consensus Declaration Intermarium Regional Conference with Ordo Iuris and the PNfV among other organisations, to promote the declaration and its principles, including the ‘protection of life’ and ‘strengthening the family’. The Declaration was put forward by the Trump administration and after the 2020 elections, the U.S. withdrew from it.

At the end of September, it was announced that the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), one of the defining events for conservative groups in the U.S:, would  be held in Budapest in March 2022 (the month before the Hungarian Parliamentary Elections) and would be co-organised by the Center for Fundamental Rights.

Given that the Center essentially functions as a mouthpiece for the government’s messages, it is unsurprising that it largely operates on public funds channeled through various foundations. The publicly-funded Fidesz party foundation known as the Foundation for a Civic Hungary financed the company the Rule of Law and Justice Nonprofit Ltd., which created owned the Center in the first years following its establishment. The company was the main beneficiary of the grants by the Foundation for a Civic Hungary in these years. Another source of public funding to the Center is from the Battyány Lajos Foundation. Since early 2018, this foundation has received at least HUF 11.3 billion (more than €30.8 million) in public funding from the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister and the central state budget. This sum was then redistributed by the Foundation to other organisations close to the Fidesz government. The Center’s parent company  received more than a billion HUF in this way. 

The Human Dignity Center

The Human Dignity Center, a Christian organisation that lobbies against abortion and LGBTQ+ rights under the banner of child protection and family values, also seems to be thoroughly embedded in the international network. Its Director, Edit Frivaldszky, has taken part in at least three World Congress of Families events (Budapest 2017; Chisinau 2018; Verona 2019) and the Agenda Europe Summit in 2015. She was also the Head of CitizenGO Hungary until at least 2016.

The “Mum, Dad & Kids” European Civil Initiative, which she led in 2015, aimed to define marriage in European Union legislation as being between a woman and a man, and the family as based on marriage or descent. Similarly phrased provisions, alongside the child’s right to self-identify according to their gender of birth, became part of the Hungarian Constitution in December 2020. This occurred just after Frivaldszky handed over a petition with 33,000 signatures to Judit Varga, the Minister of Justice. It demanded “to protect children from ideologies that deny biological evidence and to provide them with opportunities for peaceful and safe development by law”.

Edit Frivaldszky handing over the signatures in support of “protecting children from harmful ideologies” to Judit Varga, the Hungarian Minister of Justice / Source: Judit Varga’s Facebook page

Frivaldszky is also the Director of the Together for Life Association, which works for the “protection of life” and to help those in need with regards to child-bearing. While we found no indication that the Human Dignity Center receives funding from any public body, the Together for Life Association is funded partly by the central budget and by the Ministry for Human Capacities. For her work in the field of family and life protection, Frivaldszky received the ‘Chance for Life’ award from Novák in December 2021. 

Another employee at the Human Dignity Center is Ilona Keresztes, the former Editor-in-Chief of a public broadcasting radio station. She is also a well-known pro-life advocate and has connections to the international network. She spoke at the World Congress of Families in Budapest and founded the organisation Youth in the Service of Life, which aims to train young people to be advocates for the protection of life, and hence, against abortion. The organisation is the youth wing of the Together for Life Association and has organised events previously with CitizenGO Hungary and other prominent anti-LGBTQ organisations. Keresztes received the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit from Novák for her work to protect foetal life and families. Both Frivaldszky and Keresztes regularly feature in governmental media, where they spread their anti-LGBTQ+ and pro-life message  to a nationwide audience.

As mentioned before, CitizenGO has its own local sub-entity within Hungary. This unit serves as an important bridge within the country and the wider global network. While many of its petitions and campaigns are simply copied and translated from the main platform and sister sites, there are a number specifically tailored to Hungarian issues and audiences. Examples of these are a petition in support of the recently adopted “Child Protection Law”; or a petition opposing the Munich Stadium being lit by rainbow colours during a Hungary-Germany match at the 2020 European Football Championships. This was a highly contested event in the summer of 2021, during which Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó stated that “mixing sports and politics is extremely harmful and dangerous”.

What does this all mean?

The above examples show that the online campaigns of CitizenGO Hungary are arguably in line with the official positions of the Fidesz government. The Campaign Director of CitizenGO Hungary, Eszter Zaymus-Schittl, also regularly features in media outlets connected to the government echoing the official party lines and hence, legitimising the policies of those in power. It’s worth noting that Zaymus-Schittl used to be the Director of the Human Dignity Center and spoke at the World Congress of Families event held in Budapest. 

The individuals, organisations and events presented in this Digital Dispatch may be fundamental to the public discussion and setting the policy agenda of the Fidesz government in the coming months and possibly years. This will be especially true if the governing parties decide to make the rights of women and sexual minorities a central campaign topic in the upcoming elections. If Orbán once again secures a parliamentary majority and, thus, manages to stay in power, the attacks on these minority groups, as well as human rights activists and organisations, are not likely to cease anytime soon.

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This investigation was conducted with the help of Hume, a software designed to collect and visualize data points in a collaborative manner. The interactive visualisation of the dataset enabled analysts to explore the connections between entities, to identify the most influential actors across different contexts and to inform our analysis. In this way, ISD was able to link up the different strands of analysis, making them truly collaborative in nature. 

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