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Balázs Dénes

Balázs Dénes

Year: 2003
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Area of Advocacy: Civil Liberties
Organization: Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

Balázs Dénes is executive director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a nonprofit human rights organization founded in Budapest in 1994. Balázs received his law degree in 1998, from ELTE University, Budapest.

From 1998-2001, Balázs worked as the HCLU’s Drug Policy Program and in the law office of Andrea Pelle, known in Hungary as the the most highly experienced advocate on the drug issue. From the fall of 2001, he was for many years a full-time lawyer at the HCLU and the head of the HCLU’s Drug Policy Project. The goals and services of the Drug Policy Project include the promotion of harm reduction policies, criticism of prohibitionist drug policy, and provision of legal aid services. Balázs is the author of several studies, mass-media articles, and informational booklets, and serves as the editor of the HCLU’s Drug Political Booklets series, focusing on harm reduction drug policy. As a PILnet International Fellow, Balázs developed an advocacy strategy for harm reduction and drug policy in Hungary.

Just a week after attending a presentation by representatives of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) at his law school in Budapest, Balázs Dénes found himself at the HCLU’s offices, looking for ways to participate in their work. He was attracted by the intellectual energy he found there, and, after graduation split his time working for both the HCLU and a lawyer in private practice.

Soon, though, Balázs realized, “if I wanted to work for the well-being of society, I could do much more as a public interest attorney at an NGO.” He left the private firm job and became a full-time public interest lawyer for the HCLU. Now executive director of the HCLU, Balázs is committed to building a new model of public interest advocacy in Hungary.

The HCLU–also known by its Hungarian name, Társaság a Szabadságjogokért, or TASZ– serves as a watchdog organization, monitoring the observance of civil rights by the state. In this work, Balázs sees the HCLU’s independence as its central asset. “The HCLU accepts no state funding, which is unique for a Hungarian NGO,” Balázs points out. “In order to fully exercise its function as a watchdog group and to demonstrate to the public that the HCLU is free from government pressure, the HCLU has to be financially independent.”

To build support among the public for its work, the HCLU relies on a strong media advocacy strategy, issuing statements to members of Parliament and to the media when new laws are issued, for example, and responding to media inquiries on current issues. Over the last few years, the HCLU has been fortunate to develop a strong presence in the media, becoming a well-known NGO and earning a reputation for reliably acting in the public interest. Media coverage also helps to highlight the HCLU’s policy-related casework. Cases are selected based on the HCLU's policy priorities and the potential for public interest advocacy. “A good public interest advocacy case – one that can affect decision makers’ opinions or change practice - is one that allows us to show the human being behind the lawsuit,” he noted. People can tune out abstract policy arguments, Balázs explains. “But when you can show them that this particular individual was harmed, and that it could happen to someone else, then you can make an impact.” 

Balázs’s primary goal for the HCLU is to continue to maintain its sustainability without support from the state. While Hungary’s entrance into the European Union in 2004 brought substantial benefits, accession has also presented a challenge for civil society as the priorities of large foreign donor organizations have shifted eastward, away from Hungary and other new member states. “It’s true there is more work to be done further east, more serious human rights abuses,” notd Balázs. “However, the funding needs are not yet being made up for here by contributions from individuals, private organizations, or the corporate sector.”

Though it is difficult to adjust to the decline of major international funding, at the same time, Balázs asks, “Why, so many years after the fall of communism, should we still be relying on the large internationals to provide all the resources? We should be asking Hungarians now: ‘If you find this work important, then contribute money to help support it.’” Under his direction, the HCLU has begun a membership campaign modeled on that of the American Civil Liberties Union in the U.S.,  which encourages individuals to support theits mission by becoming “card-carrying members” through a modest annual donation. Balázs believes strongly that the membership campaign can accomplish a great deal through small individual contributions. “It doesn’t need to be a mass movement. All we need is enough people to understand that a certain degree of civil control is necessary for an open society to thrive. If we can accomplish this – if we can demonstrate that this kind of NGO can thrive and be effective – it will have a positive effect on civil society as a whole, by providing a model for how NGOs can do business.” 

In his work with the HCLU, Balázs draws on his experiences as a PILnet International Fellow in the U.S. in 2003, where he sought to learn more about methods and practices from the private sector that could be applied in public interest advocacy. “In Eastern Europe, human rights and public interest practitioners often think of themselves as wholly removed from the private sector. But I think that to be a good public interest lawyer, you have to be able to take the best models from every area,” Balázs said. “There are business management tools that public interest law practitioners can borrow from the big law firm models such as advertising, marketing, and using public relations to help reach an advocacy goal.”

Balázs notes that the PILnet fellowship also provides an excellent opportunity to contact other human rights and public interest lawyers in the region through its network of former and current fellows. “PILnet’s idea of investing in young, committed human rights advocates is just excellent,” he says. “This program incorporates everything needed to make people’s perspectives broader and increase their knowledge. It is great theoretical and practical training, and, just as importantly, simply helps to connect people with similar interests.”

“When I first began practicing as a lawyer,” says Balázs, “Hungary was in the middle of the post-communist transition. I felt then – and still do – that it is a great time to be a public interest lawyer in Hungary, when relatively small changes can have an enormous effect, to the benefit of society.”