Initially founded as the Committee for Human Rights in Rumania in 1976, the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation (HHRF) monitors the human rights conditions of 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians who live as minorities in Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine, and who collectively comprise the largest national minority in Central Europe. HHRF is the only professional organization in the West devoted to the rights of these communities.
HHRF is a private, independent, 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit corporation. The Foundation operates from its New York headquarters and maintains offices in Budapest and Kolozsvár (Cluj). HHRF’s major activities are documenting and reporting on the human rights conditions of these Hungarian minority communities; providing in-depth analyses for decision makers and expert testimony before U.S. and international forums, including various committees of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, OSCE Review Meetings; facilitating meetings for representatives of Hungarian minority communities in the U.S.; and various youth-focused initiatives such as human rights training and internship opportunities, as well as our ReConnect family of programs.
From 1976 until 1989, HHRF was at the forefront of the West’s mounting concern and activity regarding the systematic campaigns of forced assimilation against minorities by the former communist regimes in these countries. These policies included inciting anti-Hungarian hostilities; prohibiting the use of the Hungarian language; eliminating Hungarian-language educational, publishing and cultural institutions; forced population transfers; and the murder, imprisonment and exile of leading ethnic Hungarian dissidents.
Since 1989, Hungarian minorities still face an uphill struggle on several fronts to fully regain linguistic, educational, cultural, religious, educational, and property rights so long denied them. The legacies of intolerance against national minorities remain, and there have instances of post-communist governments colluding with extremist, neo-fascist organizations that openly incited majority populations against their minorities. For the past 30 years, HHRF has led the campaigns against major atrocities targeting ethnic Hungarians such as:
- during the former Yugoslavia wars of the 1990s;
- the onslaught against Hungarian-language speech in Slovakia and the Fico government’s collusion with extremists in the mid to late 2000s;
- the escalated physical assaults against Hungarian children in Voivodina (Serbia) between 2002 and 2005;
- ongoing failure to fully restitute communist-era confiscated religious properties in Romania since the early 2000s; and
- current-day attacks on Hungarian leaders; institutions, linguistic and educational rights in Ukraine.
Since the downfall of communism, HHRF has also mobilized Western support for the positive initiatives and aspirations of Hungarian minority communities to restore their traditions of educational and cultural excellence in the contemporary context.
In line with our overarching mission to preserve and promote Hungarian cultural identity, in 2012 we established ReConnect Hungary – Hungarian Birthright Program. Under the patronage of former New York State Governor George E. Pataki – and inspired by his daughter, author Allison Pataki – the cultural, social and educational immersion program reconnects American and Canadian youth (aged 18-28, with any degree of Hungarian ancestry) to their Hungarian roots.
The Foundation is the recipient of numerous awards including the first “For Minorities Award” (Kisebbségekért Díj) confered by post-communist Hungary in 1996, and the American Hungarian Foundation’s Abraham Lincoln Award in 2007.
Below are highlights from HHRF’s many, wide-ranging initiatives throughout the past 43 years in our various program areas:
Monitoring, Research and Analysis. Until 2018, the Foundation hosted the homepages of 109 major ethnic Hungarian organizations and newspapers in the affected countries on its website. As a matter of fact, Szabadság, a Hungarian-language daily in Romania, was the first post-communist Hungarian minority newspaper to ever appear on the Internet, on our portal.
- For the past 44 years, HHRF has advocated for the return of 2,140 Hungarian religious and community properties illegally confiscated under communism in Romania. Throughout the 2000s, HHRF consulted with the State Department’s special envoy for restitution matters and initiated a Property Restitution Working Group for stakeholders to keep informed about developments. In April 2003, we co-organized a briefing on this issue for staff of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The Foundation has organized several Washington, D.C. visits by Hungarian leaders from Romania, and issued its latest report on this egregious human rights violation in December 2018.
Publications, Lectures and Information Services. To date, HHRF has published twelve books in English, Hungarian and Rumanian, and served as a source for media agencies and other human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights (Helsinki) Watch, Freedom House, Minority Rights Group, International Human Rights Law Group, as well as the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Council of Europe.
- In March 1990, HHRF organized the three-week North American visit of Bishop László Tőkés, the ethnic Hungarian Reformed minister whose defiance of the Ceausescu regime sparked the December 1989 revolution in Romania. The visit included meetings with President George Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and leading government, church and civic leaders in the U.S. and Canada. In June 1990, HHRF assisted the preeminent Transylvanian-Hungarian playwright András Sütő — blinded in one eye by beatings suffered during the March 1990 outbreak of anti-Hungarian violence in Marosvásárhely — in meetings at the White House, the Congress and with various journalists and Hungarian-American groups. 1991-1995, HHRF made similar arrangements for visits to Washington and New York by Géza Domokos and Bishop László Tőkés (then-President and Honorary President, respectively, of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Rumania); as well as András Ágoston, President of the Democratic Community of Hungarians in Voivodina. In July 1995, HHRF organized the Washington visit of the presidents of the three parties forming the Hungarian Coalition in the Parliament of Slovakia: Béla Bugár (Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement), Miklós Duray (Coexistence Political Movement) and László Á. Nagy (Hungarian Civic Party). An April 1997 visit by Senator Béla Markó (president of the ethnic Hungarian party which became a member of Romania’s three-party governing coalition) involved 39 meetings with U.S. Senators and Members of Congress, White House and State Department officials, and representatives of the World Bank and the IMF.
- HHRF has organized 12 demonstrations since 1976, including a 17-country 36-city worldwide demonstration on November 15, 1988, protesting Ceausescu’s plan to demolish 7,000, or more than half of Rumania’s 13,000 villages.
- Organizing Human Rights Workshops in various U.S. venues, and one in Hungary for Voivodina youth, has also been an area of focus.
Representation at Domestic and International Forums. From 1976 until 1986, HHRF presented more than 1,000 pages of written testimony and testified orally on 27 separate occasions before U.S. Congressional committees, in addition to numerous presentations at Congressional Human Rights briefings, where the organization documented the Rumanian regime’s non-compliance with human rights norms. The culmination to this period of HHRF’s efforts occurred in 1987, when the Congress voted on four separate occasions to suspend Rumania’s Most-Favored-Nation status, granted in 1975 as a reward for Ceausescu’s alleged “independence” from Moscow.
- From 1980-1994, HHRF has represented the plight of Hungarian minorities at nine Helsinki Final Act Follow-Up Meetings, disseminating information and organizing press conferences, receptions and demonstrations. In June 1991, HHRF president László Hámos served as a Public Member of the U.S. Delegation to the CSCE Geneva Review Meeting on National Minorities. HHRF was selected as the first NGO representative to ever address a meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now: OSCE) at the 1994 Summit Meeting in Budapest.
- On August 26-28, 1992, HHRF’s president attended the London Conference on former Yugoslavia as a delegate and advisor to András Ágoston, President of the Democratic Association of Hungarians in Vojvodina.
Samizdat and Dissident Assistance; Relief Funds. Under communist rule, HHRF operated an underground information gathering network in Romania. Primary source, Hungarian-language samizdat documents (from Czechoslovakia as well) were translated, and subsequently disseminated in the West by the Foundation to other human rights organizations, decision makers, the media and concerned citizens.
Major documentation included the protest letters of Károly Király to the Romanian leadership in the 1970s; all issues of Ellenpontok (Counterpoints), the only underground publication to appear regularly in any language under the Ceausescu dictatorship; and more than 500 news releases of the Hungarian Press of Transylvania, which operated clandestinely from 1983 until 1990.
- Beginning November 1987, HHRF operated a Transylvania Relief Fund for approximately two years, through our well-established clandestine network in Hungary and Rumania, providing food, clothing and medicine parcels directly to families in need.
- In 1990 HHRF collected $38,564 for András Sütő’s medical care. The renowned Hungarian writer from Marosvásárhely had been blinded in one eye at the hands of extremist attackers.
- In the two years following the fall of communism, the Foundation secured and distributed a major shipment (ten tons) of medical equipment and supplies from a consortium of Texas hospitals to Romanian ones.
Human Rights Internship and Exchange Program. Since 1984, this HHRF program has provided the opportunity for 73 interns from around the world (including youth from East-Central Europe since 1989) to gain proficiency in international minority rights protection. Internship periods have lasted from 3-12 months and encompassed Budapest, New York and Washington, D.C. so participants gain first-hand experience in representing the human rights concerns of Hungarian minorities through direct contact with other non-governmental organizations, governmental agencies, the media and the general public. Interns have returned to their home countries to apply their experiences on behalf of their communities in various fields.
Support for Minority Cultures and Civil Society. HHRF conducts occasional fundraising efforts to assist select cultural and educational institutions. Beginning 1990, the Foundation has forwarded over $150,000 to more than ten initiatives in East Central Europe such as a minority journalism and publishing center in Kolozsvár ($50,000), a multi-lingual publishing house (Kriterion Foundation, $20,000), the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the first Hungarian theater (Hungarian Theater of Kolozsvár, $6,355), and Hungarian literary journals throughout the region (Apáczai Sajtóhíd Alapítvány, $7,315).
Since October 2001, HHRF is the official coordinator for international contacts and assistance on behalf of Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania. This independent, private institution opened its doors in September 2001 to serve the educational needs of the large Hungarian community in Romania not met by public institutions. HHRF has collected over $100,000 in contributions, as well as in-kind donations. Thus, the University has been able to provide scholarships; modernize equipment; develop its curriculum; and expanded partnership and exchange programs.