Human Rights body urges review of Electoral Act

Emily Logan warns of ‘repressive measures’ being used against rights groups in Europe

Emily Logan: “Ireland must seek to protect the rights of those who face the greatest barriers to justice.” File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Emily Logan: “Ireland must seek to protect the rights of those who face the greatest barriers to justice.” File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has called for a review of the Electoral Act because it may be having “a chilling effect” on the funding and activities of civil society groups.

The State’s national human rights and equality body has urged Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy, Minister of State John Paul Phelan and members of the Oireachtas in a policy statement issued on Monday to ensure the law avoids “undue restrictions” on civil society organisations engaging in legitimacy advocacy.

The IHREC pointed to concerns raised as long ago as 2003 and as recently as last year that the wide scope of the legislation intended to ban large, anonymous foreign donations in elections and referendum campaigns could be hindering the general advocacy work of civil society organisations.

Clearer links

It is calling for clearer links so that restrictions that are placed on “third party” activity and activity for “political purposes” with electoral matters – namely elections and referendums – are not applied to wider civil society activity that aims to influence political decision making and policy making.

The commission wants the review to consider how the State can guarantee a legal framework and a “conducive political and public environment” for human rights defenders that will allow civil society groups and national institutions to carry out activities freely and legally, consistent with international law.

The review should take account of wider reforms in the oversight of electoral processes being considered under proposals to establish a statutory Electoral Commission that would regulate political funding, advertising and expenditure.

“Repressive measures are increasingly being used in Europe and globally to shrink the space in which human rights organisations can function,” said Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the IHREC.

“Ireland must not, though an unintended consequence of legislative change, give succour to this kind of approach and must instead seek to protect the rights of those who face the greatest barriers to justice.”

The commission, in its eight-page policy statement, pointed to the large number of civil society groups that has recently raised concerns about the wording of the Electoral Act and its effect on their ability to seek funding for their activities from international sources such as philanthropic trusts or foundations.

The organisations had also raised concerns about “a perceived shift” in approach to the enforcement of the Electoral Act in recent years, the statement says.

Amnesty International

The statement comes months after Amnesty International Ireland called for the Government to amend the Electoral Act. The human rights group successfully challenged the Standards in Public Office Commission last year on an order to return a €137,000 donation from an international foundation.

SIPO had ordered Amnesty under the Act to return the donation to a Swiss-based foundation founded by businessman George Soros, arguing that it was for political purposes.

Amnesty refused, saying that the money was for “a human rights purpose”: a campaign to increase support for a referendum to overturn the Eight Amendment constitutional ban on abortion.

As part of a settlement of Amnesty’s High Court challenge against the order, SIPO accepted that its decision that the donation was for political purposes was “procedurally flawed.”

Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, raised concerns about the “vague wording” of the law and said that it was so broadly written that anybody seeking to influence Government policy could be “captured by the act” and faces catastrophic restrictions on sourcing funds.