UN Committee supports charities in fight for freedom of expression

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Canada has received a rebuke from a United Nations treaty monitoring body for its lack of respect for human rights. The Human Rights Committee (HRC) released a lengthy list of issues it cited as concerning as part of its concluding observations on the country's review of civil and political rights.

Included was an important reference to the federal government's efforts to silence human rights organizations and advocacy through the Income Tax Act (ITA) -- a welcome expression of support for charities under audit.

Canada Without Poverty (CWP) had taken this issue to Geneva earlier in July to raise awareness of the "advocacy chill" and the threatened environment charities have been forced to work in for years. The organization is one of many charities being audited to determine if it has allocated too many of its resources to speaking out about laws and policies that need to be changed to alleviate poverty. The ITA caps charitable activities deemed "political" at 10 per cent of its resources, even if these actions are pursuant to defined charitable activities or in defense of human rights.

The UN recommended that Canada ensure the Act "does not result in unnecessary restrictions on the activities of non-governmental organizations defending human rights." This strengthens the message of charities under audit who have consistently spoken out against this undemocratic practice.

In a press release CWP's Board President spoke of the apprehension charities have felt in the face of government audits, "These audits have resulted in mounting fear of losing charitable status, and therefore necessary funding sources, across the entire charitable sector. Human rights in Canada are under assault, and the UN Human Rights Committee noted that today."

The HRC pointed to the scope of the section of the Income Tax Act that relates to political activity, "The Committee is further concerned at the ambit of section 149.1 of the Income Tax Act relating to donations to non-governmental organizations registered as charities whose activities are considered as political activities when they relate to the promotion of human rights." A comment that should not be taken lightly.

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Canada is subject to review periodically. The last review was 10 years ago and during the time the government's approach to human rights seems to have changed.

A number of charities and non-governmental organizations released a statement on the Committee's observations noting that over the past decade the "state of human rights in Canada has seriously deteriorated." The groups, representing a wide scope of interests -- Aboriginal rights and women, equality, freedom of expression, human rights implementation, refugees, anti-terrorism, advocates for economic and social rights -- called the UN recommendations "serious, important, and timely." Noting that Canada has both the wealth and capacity to tackle these human right violations, they called for a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers to determine solutions.

The Committee also listed four positive actions Canada has taken in the past 10 years with respect to civil and political rights. You read that right -- four. And of the four, three are provincial actions: two pieces of legislation that support human rights (Newfoundland and PEI), and an adjustment to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that now allows it to receive direct complaints. These are noteworthy steps deserving of praise, but it also demonstrates that lack of federal government engagement towards their international human rights obligations.

With the Income Tax Act on the minds of policymakers these observations could be the push they need to make the necessary reforms. Change is not just about respecting charities; it's about respecting human rights.

The government will be updating the committee next year on the progress it has made from these recommendations. Let's hope that fixing the ITA is one of their accomplishments.


Megan Hooft is Deputy Director of Canada Without Poverty.

Photo: flickr/ Lucas Hayas

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