Hungarian Conservative

Could the Current Human Rights Regime Be Changed? — An Interview with Oxford Research Associate Jonathan Price

Jonathan Price in Budapest on 29 May 2024
Máté Lefler/Hungarian Conservative
‘Within the current regime, human rights are too profitable and entrenched for many influential entities to support significant reforms,’ Jonathan Price, Research Associate at Oxford University highlighted in an interview with Hungarian Conservative.

Jonathan Price holds a dual fellowship as the John and Daria Barry Fellow of Pusey House and Pusey Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, and is a Research Associate of the Programme for the Foundations of Law, in Oxford’s Faculty of Law. He recently attended the conference Rule of Law as Lawfare, co-organized by the Danube Institute, the Center for Fundamental Rights, and The European Conservative in Budapest. In an interview with Hungarian Conservative recorded during the discussion, Mr Price addressed the perception of Hungary in British intellectual circles, the relationship between the human rights regime and migration, and the potential reform of the former, along with the challenges associated with implementing such reforms.


The perception of Hungary is quite different in various parts of the Western world. How do British intellectuals view the country?

I think most intellectuals as intellectuals don’t think much about Hungary or any other country that isn’t in their area of interest. As humans and political animals, they probably think about Hungary more and depending on what press they read or what their politics are, they will think of Hungary differently. Britain has a lot of people who are quite transatlanticist and are interested in the relation between Britain and the United States, and a lot of people who are very francophilic, very interested in France or Europe. If you think of it in terms of transatlanticism, it’s uncertain what Hungary’s relation is to the transatlantic alliances. It is part of NATO, but also flirts with other possibilities for the future. So they might have a neutral to negative view of Hungary because they don’t know what it might mean. If you think of it in terms of France and Germany and Europe, Hungary is a country that likes to make itself known sometimes by poking Europe a little bit and trying to get what it wants that way. That’s looked at negatively typically.

Overall, probably in the academy, you have 90 to 95 per cent of the people who are politically left of centre.

Right now that means that Hungary is not viewed politically favourably. As a region or a place or an historical settlement, I think there’s a more favourable sense. People know Budapest, they know about Hungary. Mr Orbán is a separate thing because overall the view is probably negative, many Brits think that he’s working against European or British interests for his own interests. They might respect that, but they feel like it’s diverging. The two paths are diverging. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s false, but that’s the sense you get. If you mention Hungary to a colleague in the university—and Oxford is not the most left, there are places that are much further to the left—the reaction is probably going to be neutral or negative.

As you mentioned, British universities, like nearly all Western institutions, are overwhelmingly left-leaning. We are witnessing increasing attempts by conservative leaders to address the perceived dangers of this trend and regain control over how taxpayers’ money is spent. This is exemplified by Ron DeSantis’ initiative in Florida and the Hungarian government’s actions in Hungary. Can these efforts be successful?

Universities in the United States have more money than God. They have more money than some small nations. For example, Harvard’s endowment must be 40, 50 billion by now. It’s stupid money, as we say. That money comes from two places. One is from private individuals, and the other is from government privileges that are given to these universities that allow them to receive student loan money that is then guaranteed by the government. Even if the student doesn’t pay it back, Harvard keeps the money. And there is also research money. When COVID was happening, the money that went to the medical centres for research was massive. And that’s a small percentage of very large buckets of money that are shovelled to these universities. On the other side, the universities want to have complete independence, no responsibility to American values, to the nation, to the preservation of tradition, to the historical settlement of America as a predominantly Christian nation with large minorities, including Jews and others, they don’t want that. They want to allow themselves to follow politics.

So you have simultaneously large amounts of money being shovelled in from public funds, and, in Harvard’s case, the president of Harvard, last year in an interview with Congress, wasn’t able to say that calling for genocide of Jews was against Harvard’s policies. So this seems very disproportionate that you have so many privileges being given to an institution that is not taxed. None of its land is taxed. None of its donations are taxed. They can make all the money they want on it, can distribute it in ways that would seem to be inimical to basic American values. DeSantis is looking at things like that and saying not only private universities, but public universities, that are completely or mostly funded by taxpayer money, are also in a sense, disparaging and complaining about, and mocking the basic values of this nation. And I’m not talking about the most fervent patriotic values. They refuse to allow military service on the campus, basic things like that. DeSantis and others have said, well, if you’re going to be a public institution, you should at least support the basic principles that our country, or in this case, our state, Florida, is founded on, as a way to exercise some control. That seems to me sensible, but the trouble is, if you were to get a political class in place, if the universities are returned to have some sort of government control and you get the wrong people in leadership, it can become even worse. So I think it’s a solution to a current problem, but it’s not a permanent solution to these problems.

According to Jonathan Price states face an extremely difficult situation in protecting their borders due to the current human rights regime. PHOTO: Máté Lefler/Hungarian Conservative

In quite different waters, although the Hungarian and British governments disagree on several important issues, a significant problem links Budapest and London: the growing migratory pressure. Both countries are striving to protect their borders as effectively as possible, but the current human rights regime does not always permit this.

Nowadays, human rights lawyers, academics, and others often argue that an individual’s right to flee from a place where they feel endangered or unwelcome, or even their desire to move, takes precedence over a state’s right to exclude them. If you come to their doorstep, it is not your responsibility to prove that you should be allowed in; rather, it is their problem to justify why you should be removed.

For many nations, if they have land borders, this is sometimes a little more easily dealt with because, it’s sad, but true: they’ll just push people across the border.

So Britain right now is in a bit of a crisis that it wants to deter people from trying to come. Because of the human rights law and the international agreements that Britain has made, it is required to help anyone who gets to the shores, at least by processing their case. If that’s a few thousand per year, the courts can probably handle it. When it comes a few tens of thousands, there’s a backlog. When it becomes a few hundreds of thousands, it becomes impossible. Germany experienced this issue when Syria fell, and people also started arriving from North Africa. The only response they could manage was to throw up their hands and say: ‘Okay, you’re welcome.’ It would have been impossible, because of the current human rights regimes, to legitimately process everyone and send them back.

Of course, we cannot say that human rights are a ‘bad invention.’ With this in mind, how did we end up in this unfavourable situation?

Human rights started as natural rights in the 18th century, as a modern articulation of natural law that said the state can’t do certain things to me unless there’s a just reason. Then in the 19th century, they became protections in society from one person against another. You can’t do something to me unless I give permission. The state was still there. The third stage, I think, is that they become protections for me against the world. At that point, borders become impossible.

For a long time, the left, particularly the socialist left, was highly nationalistic, resembling North Korea more than modern social democrats. They understood that socialist principles could only function within a nation and did not believe in an international model. As a result, borders were strictly controlled. In fact, citizens were not permitted to leave these countries, as allowing people to emigrate would undermine the social safety nets and redistribution mechanisms essential for maintaining the socialist system.

In the last 15 to 20 years, the left has promoted the idea of a borderless world, made legally feasible by contemporary interpretations of human rights. This shift is why Hungary faces the challenge of controlling its borders, welcoming some but asserting: ‘We’re not a big country; we can’t take everyone.’ Similarly, Britain, while more accommodating, contends: ‘We are a big country, but we cannot take everyone.’ This situation creates a legal nightmare.

The principles underlying human rights are fundamentally good, but they have been overextended beyond their legitimate use. Originally intended for specific purposes, these rights are now being applied to situations and on a scale that was never anticipated. The current global movements of people are unprecedented, and they challenge the ability to protect political communities as envisioned.

Is there any chance that the current human rights regime will be reformed or at least changed to be more effective?

It’s an open question, and I’ve attended a few conferences where people have posed the same question. People who like the truth inside the human rights but don’t like the regime of human rights. So they like the protection of property, the protection of the body, the protection of reputation, the protection of one’s family. All these basic protections which are good for us and allow us to live in a world of liberty.

I don’t think the current human rights regime can be corrected internally because it is so vast and well-funded,

involving influential people and countries, including leaders themselves. Additionally, there is an endless stream of potential victims of violations, as many people who arrive at Hungary’s or the UK’s door present legitimate cases. To be fair, some of them genuinely need all of those protections. I believe the solution will have to come from an indirect approach or an entirely different direction. Reform from within seems unlikely. However, this does not mean we should abandon human rights altogether.

Abandoning human rights would be the wrong approach. However, certain countries might need to find ways to impose limitations by decree. For instance, they could set a fixed number of people they will accept each year and adhere to it. Yet, such measures are harsh, and most countries may lack the will to implement them. For example, the UK could decide to have a net immigration rate of zero, allowing only as many people to enter as those who leave or pass away.

Imposing such restrictions would require extreme circumstances, such as war or widespread disease. COVID-19 demonstrated that borders could be closed when necessary, despite previous claims that they could not. If there were a significant conflict with a major power like China or Russia, borders would likely be reinforced immediately. However, within the current regime, human rights are too profitable and entrenched for many influential entities to support significant reforms.

Read more of our interviews:

‘We should build on our Christian tradition to preserve European values’ – An Interview with Professor Ferenc Hörcher
Helping States Avoid Biased Judgements at International Courts — An Interview with Human Rights Expert Nicolas Bauer
‘Within the current regime, human rights are too profitable and entrenched for many influential entities to support significant reforms,’ Jonathan Price, Research Associate at Oxford University highlighted in an interview with Hungarian Conservative.