Ireland: Amnesty could face charges over abortion campaign

Human rights groups in Ireland are being unfairly targeted under a draconian law that can be used to criminalise campaigning organisations, Amnesty International Ireland said today.

Amnesty Ireland has been informed by the Irish government’s regulatory body, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC), that it has broken the law by accepting funding for its human rights work from an international donor.

The organisation could now face a criminal investigation and possible prosecution after being told a foreign donation it received is prohibited by law.

Amnesty’s Dublin office has been ordered to pay back a €137,000 (£120,000) grant received from the Open Society Foundations (OSF) last year. Failure to comply would be a criminal offence under Ireland’s Electoral Act. The grant was made to support a campaign to ensure abortion laws in Ireland comply with human rights.

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, said:

“Ireland is targeting Amnesty International purely for its human rights work.

“This decision is an indefensible attack on human rights defenders, and shocking evidence of the real threat the Electoral Act poses to wider civil society organisations in Ireland.”

The Electoral Act forbids overseas donations of more than €100 to what is vaguely defined as “third party” organisations for “political purposes”. However, SIPOC wrote to Amnesty Ireland only last year to acknowledge that its work on reforming Ireland’s abortion laws, including that supported by the OSF grant, was not in breach of the Act and that the organisation was not required to register as a “third party”. A year later, SIPOC has reversed its position without any material change to the facts.

Colm O’Gorman said:

“Why SIPOC reversed its position on this funding is not clear. What we do know is that some domestic and international groups that oppose our work on the rights of women and girls, and some elements of the media, have been painting our campaign to reform Ireland’s abortion law as ‘controversial’ or ‘too political’. They have also portrayed foreign funding as somehow sinister.

“This is despite major public support for expanding Ireland’s harsh abortion law and repealing the Eighth Amendment. It also overlooks the fact that Amnesty International is completely independent of any political ideology, economic interest or religion.

“Amnesty International will not be complying with the instruction from the SIPOC and will deploy every means at its disposal to challenge this unfair law.”

Flawed law

SIPOC enforcement of the “third party” provision of the Electoral Act primarily involves responding to complaints it receives. In practice, this means its powers can be misused by certain groups or individuals that wish to target organisations working on particular issues, for example by bombarding SIPOC with complaints. Amnesty believes SIPOC’s complaint mechanism and enforcement powers are being deliberately manipulated by individuals and groups who disagree with the organisation’s work.

John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said:

“It is entirely unacceptable that this flawed law is being weaponised by those who are opposed to a range of human rights and equality issues, such as abortion, sexual and reproductive rights and marriage equality. That the state is allowing its laws and regulations to be used in this way is deeply alarming. The Irish government must urgently intervene to ensure Ireland’s laws and regulatory frameworks stop obstructing the work of civil society.”

Problems with the Electoral Act

SIPOC itself has repeatedly highlighted the Electoral Act’s flaws. In 2003, it said the overly-broad definition of “political purposes” meant it could unintentionally cover the work of a wide range of organisations that the law was not meant to regulate, explicitly naming Amnesty in that list.

The Electoral Act is also completely at odds with Ireland’s foreign policy. Ireland has been one of the more active nations seeking to defend the space for civil society and protect against repressive legislation, including in countries such as Russia, Hungary and Egypt.

Colm O’Gorman said:

“Despite SIPOC’s own concerns about the vagueness of the Electoral Act, some 14 years later it is now using this to unfairly apply the law to Amnesty International’s human rights work. The situation would be farcical were it not so disturbing.

“It is equally preposterous that Ireland, which has rightly criticised draconian anti-NGO laws elsewhere, retains a law which is even more restrictive and far-reaching.”

Amnesty believes the root cause of these developments is the Electoral Act itself, most specifically the 2001 amendments, which allow civil society organisations’ funding to be denied or severely restricted simply for being perceived as seeking to influence government policy. The Act requires urgent amendment to ensure that civil society organisations are not wrongfully punished by this law.

Amnesty, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Transparency International have previously urged the government to amend the Electoral Act and submitted proposals for straightforward amendments in July this year.

Colm O’Gorman said:

“The Irish government cannot allow this to continue. It must urgently amend the Electoral Act to make it clear that it was never the intention of the legislature to target civil society and so punitively restrict their access to funding.” 

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