Hauser Center Fellow Asks ‘Are Human Rights too Political to be Charitable?’

June 18, 2009
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

Nonprofit organizations devoted to human rights causes in Ireland might not qualify for charitable status under the dictates of a new Irish law.

Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations Visiting Fellow Oonagh Breen is currently researching the law and its implications, and she presented her research Wednesday (June 17) at the Hauser Center's final brown bag lunch of the academic year.

The Charities Act of 2009 was the first set of new laws in more than 50 years regulating the operation of Irish charities. The Act was initially lauded, Breen explained, for enhancing the transparency of charities’ spending and financial activity and for establishing a national regulatory and governance framework for charities. The exclusion of human rights organizations from charitable status, however, has proved to be controversial, especially since the promotion of human rights was included in early drafts of the bill but disappeared from the final version – and Breen said experts have yet to determine why.

“What we find is that it’s not very clear from the charities debates the reason why,” she said. “What we do discover is that it’s not a legal decision… We learn that it’s a cabinet decision. Cabinet decided politically ‘we’re not going to include human rights in the bill.”

Breen explained that one reason why human rights organizations may be excluded is because they may be seen as too political. The Charities Act specifies that to be eligible for charity status an organization must have solely charitable purposes, provide public benefit and must not promote any political cause not directly related to its charitable purposes. Moreover, a human rights organization or indeed any body that represents itself as a charity without being officially registered can be criminally prosecuted.

Looking to possible quick-fix solutions for the exclusion of human rights from the Act’s list of charitable purposes, Breen said there are several cases of human rights organizations in other countries with similar laws trying to circumvent the restriction by blurring the reality of their purpose.

“Hide the promotion of human rights under the covers of advancement of education or relief of poverty. That’s what a lot of countries have done in the past - fudge it,” said Breen. However, she pointed out, annual reporting requirements will make it difficult to hide the true motives of a charity over a long period of time.

Ireland has a complicated history related to human rights organizations and their dual role as both a political entity and a charity. Breen’s research to date has concluded that politics, human rights organizations and charities can live together harmoniously – indeed, history and the laws from the mid-20th century support this – though whether Ireland’s policymakers will make the necessary changes remains to be seen.

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Oonagh Breen

In Oonagh Breen's research into why human rights organizations may not be accepted as charities in Ireland she asks, are human rights organizations too political to be charitable? Photo credit, Doug Gavel.