A UN Special Rapporteur has written a letter condemning a Bill that will limit the ability of not-for-profits to campaign in the year of a national election as a “stain on democracy”.
On Sunday 12 January a British newspaper published a letter by a prominent UN official criticising a Bill which will restrict the ability of not-for-profit organisations in the UK to engage in advocacy in the year of national elections. In his letter Maini Kiai, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association claims that the ‘Lobbying Bill’ threatens “to tarnish the United Kingdom’s democracy.”
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill – more commonly known as the Lobbying Bill – will be debated in the House of Lords (upper house of the parliament of the UK) later today (Wednesday 15th). Whilst the government offered some technical amendments to the Bill last week in an attempt to appease public criticisms of the Bill by charities, these concessions have done little to allay fears that the legislation could have a chilling effect on advocacy.
Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) echoes Mr. Kiai’s concerns that the Bill threatens to “shrink the space for citizens – particularly those engaged in civil society groups – to express their collective will”. We have been vocal in calling for the exemption of charities from the legislation and have signed a joint letter with the Royal British Legion, The Directory of Social Change and the Small Charities Coalition outlining our arguments for believing such an exemption to be the best option.
It is important to recognise that there are legitimate concerns behind the Lobbying Bill. The Bill proposes attempts to regulate lobbying throughout the electoral cycle following a number of lobbying scandals that have engulfed this and previous governments. This desire to weaken the ability of wealthy individuals and powerful lobbyists to game the electoral process in pursuit of vested interests is understandable. However, as has been discussed in more detail elsewhere, the Bill could, in its current form, significantly weaken civil society.
A more substantive analysis of the Lobbying Bill and the rationale for an amendment to the Bill exempting charities can be found on CAF’s Giving Thought blog but given Mr. Kiai’s timely intervention, I would like to take the chance to place the Bill in international context.
In December CAF sent a briefing note to peers of the House of Lords asking them to consider the Lobbying Bill in context with international trends in not-for-profit law and the UK’s responsibility to adhere to internationally accepted principles on the role of advocacy in civil society.
The briefing detailed CAF’s concerns that in its current form the Lobbying Bill;
- would weaken the UK’s reputation for creating a positive environment for civil society
- threatens the longstanding principle that advocacy is a key function of civil society organisations
- would see the UK follow regressive international trends in the relationship between government and civil society
In his letter to the Observer Maina Kiai references similarly regressive legislation being proposed in Georgia which he reported on to the UN Human rights Council in June 2012. Indeed, the Lobbying Bill appears to be part of an extremely worrying international trend in which governments are restricting the ability of not-for-profit organisations to engage in advocacy. In a recent report to the UN General Assembly Mr. Kiai highlighted this trend and challenged the idea that charities should not engage in political activities.
“It is a source of serious concern that the term “political” has been interpreted in many countries in such a broad manner as to cover all sorts of advocacy activities; civic education; research; and more generally, activities aimed at influencing public policy or public opinion. It is clear that this interpretation is solely motivated by the need to deter any forms of criticism.”
Kiai. M, Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Item 69 (b) of the provisional agenda, United Nations General Assembly, August 2013
Other examples of this recent international crackdown on not-for-profit advocacy include:
- In Canada, a nation which regularly appears at or near the top of global league tables for human development and civil liberties, concerns are growing about increasingly hostile political and legislative environment for advocacy. The 2012 Federal Budget saw a C$8 million increase of the budget of the Canadian Revenue Authority to audit the advocacy and political activities of charities and the Voice-Voix coalition have documented increasingly punitive interpretations of “political activity” by the Canada Revenue Agency alongside a rise in negative government rhetoric around not-for-profit advocacy.
- In Ecuador, a toxic atmosphere for not-for-profit advocacy characterised by repeated statements by President Correa criticising not-for-profits for political interference has been exacerbated by draft law which enacted would have a chilling effect on civil society. The law allows for excessive government discretion to dissolve NGOs. Grounds for dissolution of an NGO include “political proselytizing,” and “compromising … the interests of the State,” In 2012 Amnesty International expressed their concern to the UN that this decree ‘may be applied in a way that poses obstacles to the work of human rights defenders, unless safeguards are put in place to prevent this from happening.
- In Indonesia, CIVICUS report (and also reported on this blog) that the recent Law on Mass Organisations (ORMAS Law) bars not-for-profit organisations from propagating ideology that conflicts with ‘Pancasila’ – the principles of official state philosophy of Indonesia – thereby providing government officials with a powerful tool to silence organisations that oppose official policy. The Law also prohibits activities falling within the purview of law enforcement agencies and government, curbing activities related to reform of the political, legal and security sectors.
CAF’s CEO John Low recently wrote a Huffington Post blog detailing our concerns about the Lobbying Bill and we have been reassured by the strength of opposition to the Bill in civil society. It is hoped that the Lords recognise the potential damage that the Bill could cause and act to exempt charities from the Bill and re-affirm the importance of their role in the democratic process.