The Canada Revenue Agency recently released a proposed guidance on the protection of human rights and charitable registration. This guidance emphasizes the importance of human rights with CRA’s public acknowledgment that protection of human rights is a charitable purpose in Canada.

CRA will recognize organizations that seek to encourage, support and uphold human rights as charitable to the extent that these rights have been secured by domestic or international law. In the past some organizations were denied registration because the protection of human rights was seen as a political activity. The CRA’s guidance explains that many of these activities are no longer political given that Canadian and international law has now established a legal regime that supports human rights. The guidance states that advocating for new legal rights or opposing or advocating changes to current laws at the domestic or international level remains a political activity. Registered charities can engage in this type of political activity as long as the activity is connected and subordinate to the charitable purpose and consumes no more than 10% of the charity's resources (or up to 20% for smaller charities).

CRA states that what is political in one country may not be in another country. The guidance helpfully suggests that the more widespread a charity’s human rights operations are internationally, the less likely limited advocacy activities in one country will be found to have a political purpose. The guidance also notes that while charities cannot carry out activities to abolish laws such as the death penalty (beyond the political limit), a charity can work within the limits of the law to ensure that such rules are not applied in individual cases.

The guidance provides several examples of acceptable activities, including:

  • providing housing, medical services, basic necessities, and psychological counselling for victims of
  • human rights abuses,
  • establishing legal clinics to provide legal protection against human rights abuses,
  • carrying out workshops and research on human rights,
  • providing faith-based preaching and workshops on human rights,
  • promoting awareness and respect for the protection of human rights,
  • investigating violations of human rights laws,
  • creating and disseminating reports on the progress of countries on the enforcement of human
  • rights legislation,
  • providing training to government and judiciary regarding the laws and treaties on human rights, and
  • providing well-reasoned commentary and recommendations to signatory governments on the implementation of treaties.

The guidance is certainly a helpful start. It could be improved by de-emphasizing the focus on an existing legal regime. Some of the activities that CRA acknowledges as charitable in the guidance do not require an existing legal regime such as education as well as mental and physical support to victims of human rights violations as defined under international treaties, even if the victim’s country is not a signatory. It would be useful if the policy acknowledged that the protection of human rights does not require protecting a legal regime.

It would also be useful if the guidance directly recognized that promotion of human rights can include public awareness campaigns about a charity’s work or an issue related to that work. Again, this type of activity does not require an existing set of laws in the country and a public awareness campaign is not political according to CRA’s policy on political activities, if it does not have a call to action.

A final concern is that the policy implies that a charity that has advancement of religion as its purpose will have to add a human rights activity to the organization’s charitable purposes in order to protect human rights. CRA should clarify that such changes are not necessary to the extent that the protection of human rights is a tenet of the religious group’s beliefs.

CRA is inviting comments on the proposed policy until July 31, 2009. Hopefully, the final guidance will provide further clarification and support to charities that protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people.