Oliver Lewis, executive director of the centre, said their mission essentially “boils down to equality and inclusion”, as many people are placed into large institutions away from their homes, where they do not want to be, and are deprived of their right to make decisions about their lives.
“There are about 60,000 people under guardianship in Hungary,” Lewis says. Under that guardianship, people with disabilities are not allowed to make important decisions about their lives, such as where to live, what to do with their own money. They can even be deprived of their right to vote or decide if and when to get married.
“In our work across fifteen countries we deal with abuse and exploitation, physical and chemical restraints, and sometimes even death,” Lewis told The Budapest Times.
Although the centre is a small NGO in the global network, in 2003 its advocacy resulted in the Hungarian government banning the use of inhumane cage-beds in psychiatric and social care facilities. It has also taken a few cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which Lewis says has led to some “ground-breaking” judgements. His organisation is now focusing on the enforcement of those judgements, he says.
An example of one such court case is that of Rusi Stanev from Bulgaria. In 2002 an ambulance picked up Stanev from his home – where he lived alone – and took him to an institution for ‘adults with mental disorders’ 400 kilometres away. Forced to live in the institution for nine years, its thin residents complained of hunger, the smell of human waste and unwashed people, and cold.
In his petition to the European Court, Stanev complained about his lack of access to justice as well as his deprivation of liberty and his right to private life. He complained of inhumane and degrading treatment and appalling conditions in the social care institution. Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Stanev’s favour and now the Bulgarian government has to put in place new laws and policies to make sure this never happens again.
“Today in Hungary there are about 24,000 people with disabilities in social care institutions. That’s the largest number of people per capita in any European country,” Lewis explains. “The government should be doing much more and it’s not, so that’s why advocacy is needed. In a time when democratic checks and balances have been weakened, there’s an even more important role for NGOs to step up.
“The problem is that there are more human rights violations and fewer independent NGOs to address them. That’s why we need more resources.”
When asked about further issues in Hungary, Lewis replied the centre has been doing a lot of advocacy for about five years, making sure that the civil code contains better laws, in compliance with international human rights laws. “The government failed to introduce that, so now we have to work even harder on making sure that these 60,000 people get their legal rights,” Lewis said.
Monday tax donation deadline
The 20 May deadline for taxpayers to donate one per cent of their income tax to charity is approaching fast. The NGO asks all people who have not yet decided where to donate their money to assign their one per cent to the Advocacy Centre. “This issue matters because it affects everyone,” Lewis says. “We could all have a mental illness, or have siblings or children who have intellectual disabilities. It’s important to do something about the people who are made invisible through being segregated and isolated and whose rights are often ignored and violated.”
Those who have already made their donations to another charity can still help the centre. As Lewis stressed: “We would very much like to find companies in Budapest that help out with things we do on a regular basis, such as design work, and printing reports that will be sent to the UN, so contributions of any kind are very important, as well as skills. If there are people with time on their hands who want to do some volunteering for us, please get in touch.
“Unlike some other NGOs we don’t receive any funding from the government. We need support to continue our advocacy in Hungary and abroad.” Because after all, as Lewis believes, “you can judge a society by the way it treats our most vulnerable citizens”.
Mental Disability Advocacy Centre
Tel.: (+36-1) 413 2730