Court questions political and illegal activity in Greenpeace charity bid
"To suggest Greenpeace is not a political organisation is absurd."Featured comment
Greenpeace's bid for charity status hinges on whether the environmental activist's political advocacy includes involvement in illegal activities.
A Court of Appeal decision has allowed Greenpeace to challenge a decision to refuse it charity status but says the organisation’s political advocacy needs to be “truly ancillary” to its principal charitable objectives.
The Department of Internal Affairs and the Charities Registration Board, which will now review the decision to decline charity status, also needs to decide whether Greenpeace is involved in illegal activities.
Greenpeace first applied in 2008 for registration as a charity but the then-Charities Commission declined the application in 2010.
There were two reasons for declining to register Greenpeace as a charity. The commission found:
- Two of Greenpeace’s objectives – promoting “peace” and “disarmament” – were political, not charitable.
- Greenpeace was involved in illegal activities, such as trespassing; therefore it was not maintained exclusively for charitable purposes as illegal purposes are not charitable.
In its decision, the commission also referred to a number of mission statements on the Greenpeace website, including:
- We are actively campaigning for international disarmament.
- We believe greater peace, greater security, greater safety is possible. Reaching out across national boundaries Greenpeace is working with citizens and political leaders around the world to make this happen.
In order to be registered as a charity an organisation must be established and maintained exclusively for charitable purposes. Political purposes are not charitable purposes.
An organisation may, however, be registered as a charity if it has a political purpose so long as the political purpose is ancillary to the charitable purposes of the organisation and is not an independent purpose.
In May last year, the High Court upheld the commission’s decision, but Court of Appeal justices Rhys Harrison, Lynton Stevens and Douglas White have now referred the application back to the Charities Commission’s replacement –the Department of Internal Affairs and the Charities Registration Board for reconsideration.
During the appeal, Greenpeace indicated it would consider making some changes to its objectives, and would look to replacing the objective of promoting disarmament with the aim of promoting peace and “nuclear disarmament and the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction”.
The judges listed a number of examples of "direct action" taken from the Greenpeace website, including boarding coal ships; occupying power stations and mines; preventing the delivery of coal to a factory by blocking it with wood fuel; boarding fishing vessels; protesting against whaling ships; disrupting whaling operations and boarding ships carrying genetically engineered food.
The ruling said Greenpeace should now be given the opportunity to provide the department with relevant and current information in light of its new ancillary “political advocacy” role.
“We share the concerns of the Charities Commission and the High Court that the information provided by Greenpeace to date does suggest that its “political advocacy” activities when assessed qualitatively were being pursued by Greenpeace as an independent objective in its own right.
However, it has warned the charities registration board “could well be justified” in reaching the same conclusion as the commission and the High Court, if it is found Greenpeace intends to pursue its political advocacy role to the same extent as its website would indicate.