A coalition of Australian charities has appealed to the United Nations after a row with the federal government over new regulations they say are a bid to silence them.
Under the planned changes, charities risk losing their tax-deductible donation status if their resources are deemed to promote offences such as trespass or property damage.
The $100 billion sector is usually funded by donors who do not have to pay tax on the money they give.
Charities have expressed concerns the changes will mean they are deregistered for things like staff members blocking a footpath at a public vigil or speaking or tweeting in support of a public demonstration.
The 12 charities have written to three UN Special Rapporteurs, urging an “intervention” to halt the proposed rules “which could shut charities down for speaking out”.
The letter states that the new rules “would breach the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, which are protected under international human rights law.
“The UN Special Rapporteurs have been asked to call on the Australian government to refrain from introducing the regulations in parliament.”
The UN petition is signed by 12 organisations including Amnesty International, Anglicare Australia, Baptist Care Australia, Oxfam, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, The Fred Hollows Foundation, St Vincent de Paul Society and UnitingCare.
“The most important social changes – like women winning the right to vote, First Australians being classified as people instead of fauna, the five-day working week – are all rights fought for with people power,” Amnesty International Australia director Sam Klintworth said.
“The idea that peaceful protest could lead to organisations like Amnesty being deregistered is unthinkable in a country that prides itself on giving everyone a fair go.”
Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, who oversees the charity regulator ACNC, has said the regulations are needed to ensure activist organisations “masquerading as charities” will no longer be tolerated.
“Australians support charities through donations and tax concessions with the expectation that charities’ resources are directed towards charitable works, not the promotion of or participation in unlawful activities,” he said.
Mr Sukkar’s office said the rules are aimed at sustained illegal activity and would not result in deregistration for staff tweets.
The letter is addressed to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.
There are about 56,000 registered charities across Australia.