Crackdown on advocacy charities in Germany part of global trend
29 November 2019 at 4:41 pm
German Holocaust survivors’ organisation loses charity status
A crackdown on advocacy charities in Germany is part of a disturbing trend happening globally, advocates have warned.
Last week, one of Germany’s oldest and largest Holocaust survivors’ organisations was stripped of its charity status amid allegations it had ties to left-wing extremists.
The Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime/Federation of Antifascists (VVN-BdA) – which was founded in 1947 by Holocaust survivors and political opponents to national socialism – received notice from the financial authorities in Berlin that its not-for-profit tax benefits would be removed.
The financial authority justified its decision by citing a 2016 report by the Bavarian intelligence agency that listed the VVN-BdA among “left-wing extremist organisations and groupings”.
But, advocates say it is symptomatic of a broader trend to curb advocacy by charities.
Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, reported that “outrage was palpable” across the social sector, with other not for profits rallying round the VVN-BdA in wake of the news.
“Not because they necessarily shared its political leanings, but because they believe tax authorities are now punishing charities for taking any political position at all,” DW said.
VVN-BdA’s Thomas Willms told DW it was about limiting the political engagement of charities.
“There is a trend, and it will get worse,” Willms said.
It comes after German campaign groups Attac and Campact also had their charity status stripped earlier this year.
It has been reported, the national finance ministry is proposing a new tax category for “political corporations”, or charitable organisations that act more like political parties.
Krystian Seibert told Pro Bono News it was part of a global trend of governments seeking to scrutinise the advocacy activities by charities more intensely.
“Whilst there is a legitimate objective of ensuring that charities act within the law, it’s hard to deny that this additional scrutiny often reflects a desire to stifle advocacy by charities, particularly where they are directly challenging government policy,” he said.
A report published in February by Amnesty International, pointed to a global trend to use restrictive legislation to target civil society organisations and human rights defenders who speak out against unjust laws and government practices, challenge public opinion or those in power.
The report found that the pace was accelerating. In the last two years alone almost 40 pieces of legislation had been either put in place or were in the pipeline.
“At least 50 countries have put in place such laws in recent years,” it said.
“Those who criticise the authorities in those countries, or who express views which are at odds with dominant political, social or cultural opinions, are at special risk.”
Seibert cautioned that Australia was not immune in this regard either, a finding that was backed up in The Amnesty report.
Civil Voices, a 2017 initiative by Pro Bono Australia and the Human Rights Law Centre, also found civil society organisations in Australia were feeling pressured to take a more cautious approach to advocacy.
Report co-author, University of Melbourne Associate Professor Sarah Maddison, said the main finding was “fairly insidious”.
“We’ve moved away from the really overtly hostile period of governance of the civil society sector. Instead what we are seeing is that the sector itself has taken on board some of those concerns into a mode of operation that we’re calling ‘self-silencing’,” Maddison said.
Seibert said it was important for civil society and its supporters to be proactive and vigilant.
“And to continue to make the case about the essential role advocacy by charities plays in our democracy, and to closely scrutinise and where necessary oppose any shifts in government policy in this space,” he said.
“There is also scope for more international cooperation between civil society groups, so we can learn from each other experiences and build a more global coalition in support of the advocacy role of charities.”