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LGBT rights group rejected for charitable status

Is this a threat to the charitable status of other human rights organisations?


The Human Dignity Trust, a non-for-profit human rights organisation that focuses on providing legal expertise in countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality, has had its application for charitable status denied. The trust advises local groups or individuals on how they can protect themselves from being prosecuted. Criminalisation of homosexuality still exists in many parts of the world today, which significantly infringes our human right to equality. The trust has been involved with many high-profile cases in countries such as Jamaica, Cyprus and Belize, with the ambition of changing their domestic legislation. It is precisely this final point that has prevented the trust from gaining charitable status.

The rejected application from the Charity Commission states that the group’s work is ‘too political’ and fails the ‘public interest’ test. The chairman of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, said: "I sympathise with [HDT's] aims … and know that many people around the world will support their work to tackle discrimination. However… we cannot and must not make our decisions based on value judgments about the merits of an organisation's aims or activities."

At the crux of the issue is the question of how a charity is defined. The problem is an issue of ‘purposes’. For a group to become a charity all of their purposes must be inherently charitable. This clause prevents corporations from adding a charitable objective and thereby avoid certain taxes which are not imposed on charities. One of the aims of the HDT is to change the laws in certain countries to decriminalize homosexuality. This purpose is political rather than charitable and, as such, fails the standards set by the Charity Commission.

On the other hand, some groups find the decision a frustrating setback which reverses years of progress and narrows the scope of the work of charities abroad.

In an interview with the Guardian, Andrea Coomber, Director of Justice, said: “The decision undermines the determination of parliament that the
advancement of human rights must be a charitable purpose. If the decision stands, valuable work to uphold important legal standards designed to protect us all will be deemed to have no public benefit. This cannot be the case.”

Tony Farnfield, Director of Corporate Services at Amnesty International UK, said: “HDT’s work to challenge the criminalisation of consensual activity is, by any sensible definition, a human rights matter and meets a common sense test of the public benefit requirement. Parliament needs to issue fresh guidance to enable the Charity Commission to apply more practical rigour in cases such as this one.”

The HDT’s CEO, Jonathan Cooper, said: “Our appeal marks the beginning of a pivotal process, the outcome of which could have serious repercussions. If upheld, the Charity Commission’s decision would set a dangerous precedent that upholding human rights law is not a charitable purpose, and many of our peer organisations are rightly
concerned.”

The HDT has appealed to the Charity Tribunal. The Charity Commission has until 11 December to submit a response. A hearing will follow afterwards.

See more information at the Human Dignity Trust website.

Words: Jack Rear (@JackSaysPurple).

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