Tax Refusal in the Context of Human Rights


Without tax refusal, we might have no codified human rights today. The cry "No taxation without representation!" ignited the American Revolution, transforming the ideas of Paine and Rousseau from philosophical abstractions to principles of government.

Modern war tax resisters however claim no general human right to withhold taxes, just a specific application of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reiterated in the European Covenant on Human Rights, Article 9, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, Article 18

In its definitive interpretation of Article 18, "General Comment 22", the Human Rights Committee which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant said in 1993: "Many individuals have claimed the right to refuse to perform military service (conscientious objection) on the basis that such right derives from their freedoms under article 18… the Committee believes that such a right can be derived from article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one's religion or belief…."

If conscientious objection to military service can be derived from Article 18, why not conscientious objection to military taxation? The two have sometimes been directly connected; in Switzerland, tax refusal has focussed on the military tax imposed on all men (including COs) excused from serving. In some countries one can pay a proxy or simply buy certification of having completed military service; thus, crudely, the rich pay while the poor give their bodies in their country's service. But doesn't that in effect happen too in countries with all-volunteer armies? In "Fahrenheit 911" Michael Moore challenges members of Congress to volunteer their own sons for military service like the unemployed youth of his home town -- a theme echoed in the campaign over the death in Iraq of Scottish soldier Gordon Gentle. And of course (except in Israel) conscientious objection to military taxation has usually been the only sort available to women.

Sadly, the Human Rights Committee itself has not yet accepted the analogy. In the early 1990s it declared inadmissible "communications" from citizens of Canada, the Netherlands and Germany who contested being forced to pay military taxes, stating "Refusal to pay taxes for reasons of conscience clearly falls outside the scope of protection of Article 18". However, no case has forced the Committee to re-examine the issue in the light of its own General Comment, which includes: "Article 18 is not limited… to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions." and "Article 18.3 ("Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limits as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others")… "is to be strictly interpreted: restrictions are not allowed on grounds not specified there, even if they would be allowed as restrictions to other rights protected in the Covenant, such as national security. Limitations may be applied only for those purposes for which they were prescribed and must be directly related and proportionate to the specific need on which they are predicated."

Crucial concepts are "manifesting" religion or belief , and "proportionality". Is tax resistance by a "peace church" member or a humanist pacifist a manifestation of belief any less fundamental than, say, the dietary restrictions of a "traditional religion"? And what is the overriding public interest in denying it? This argument is also central to the case now being brought under the British "Human Rights Act" which incorporates the European Convention's provisions in domestic law; although the UK has not accepted the right of individual petition under the International Covenant, British cases had previously joined those brought, unsuccessfully, before the European Court of Human Rights.

To be able to challenge or disobey a law which breaches one's human rights is the ultimate safety-net. Rights are best guaranteed by laws which recognise and protect them -- the objective of peace tax movements worldwide. Meanwhile, the actions of individuals (and supportive employers like WRI), who, with nothing to gain personally, willingly suffer the costs and consequences of apparently futile resistance to the authority of the state, are essential testimony to the reality and depth of the issues of conscience and belief involved.

Derek Brett is the UN representative of Conscience and Peace Tax International (CPTI). This article was written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the opinion of CPTI

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