Restrictions on the right of non-governmental organisations to receive foreign funding breach EU, UN and Council of Europe legal obligations and threaten important democratic rights, a new report from the EU rights agency warns.
The findings were welcomed by Amnesty International in Ireland whose recent refusal to repay €137,000 funding from an international philanthropic group, Open Society Foundation, has put it at loggerheads with the Standards in Public Office Commission.
Whether the group’s defiance will see it brought before the courts is unclear.
Sipo, which administers the registering of groups involved in “political” campaigning, had previously successfully sought the repayment of some €10,000 from ‘Education Equality,’ a group working for multi-denominational education and which had sought and received funding from the Humanist Association of Ireland. The act not only restricts foreign funding.
Sipo on Friday refused to elaborate or comment on past rulings, what it called “individual compliance matters”.
Amnesty claims that Sipo is overzealous in its interpretation of what constitutes political campaigning and argues that, in any case, advocacy should not be curtailed.
The EU's Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)'s report, Challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU, warns that threats to the work of NGOs, whether legal or financial, undermine an essential pillar of democratic society.
“A thriving democracy needs a healthy civil society,” the FRA’s director, Michael O’Flaherty says.
“Unfortunately, the EU’s own civil society is facing a pattern of threats and pressures in many parts of the EU. Addressing this unacceptable situation should be a high priority for policy makers at EU and national levels.”
NGOs increasingly report that it has become harder for them to support the protection, promotion and fulfilment of human rights within the Union – due to both legal and practical restrictions.
That is particularly so in Hungary and Poland where NGOs have been demonised as foreign agents by the governments, but elsewhere too, like Ireland, the report warns.
Along with legal pressures many civil society groups also face severe financial pressures from governments – in Ireland, public funding of NGOs fell by 41 per cent in the period 2008– 2014, with the total employment in civil society groups falling by 31 per cent by the end of 2015.
The report notes concerns regarding the vague wording and overly broad application of the Electoral Act, which imposes restrictions and reporting obligations on “third parties” who accept donations over €100 for “political purposes”.
“As part of the free movement of capital, civil society organisations should be free to solicit, receive and utilise funding not only from public bodies in their own state,” the report says, “but also from institutional or individual donors, and public authorities and foundations in other states or from international organisations, bodies or agencies.”
“Today’s report further underlines our concerns regarding the regulation of civil society organisations across Europe.
International human rights law is clear that there should be no distinction between the sources of funding, whether domestic or international.
States may regulate or limit funding only where this is necessary, and proportionate to a legitimate aim.
“A blanket ban on foreign funding can never be human rights compliant,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has noted that states are obliged to facilitate, not restrict, the access of associations – both registered and unregistered – to funding, including from foreign sources.
Liam Herrick of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) warned that "Ireland must get its own house in order".
In this report, the EU FRA recognises that laws introduced in Ireland for legitimate reasons are now having unintended effects in stifling the legitimate role of civil society.
"Specifically with regard to Ireland's Electoral Act, the Fundamental Rights Agency expresses concerns that the definition of 'political purposes' under the Act is so broad that it could be interpreted as curtailing legitimate human rights advocacy. "
Ironically, as Mr O’Gorman points out, that Ireland itself funds civil society organisations in other countries to support their work and their advocacy on a range of issues including development, human rights, equality and environment.