A very human right

Derek Brett examines the right to pay a peace tax rather than a tax for military purposes

Peace tax campaigners in the UK | Photo: Photo copyright Conscience UK. Used with permission.

Let me tell you the story of a young man who grew up in Switzerland. In Switzerland, all male citizens are, at the age of nineteen or twenty, called up for about three months’ military training. Thereafter they keep their rifle and their uniform at home and at intervals until their early thirties have to do a further fortnight of military service. Our young man was no exception. But a year or two later he had back problems, and the army doctor exempted him from further military service. The problems were treated and he continued playing tennis. At this he was quite successful. However the army did not rush to review its original decision. Perhaps the fact that Swiss men who for any reason do not perform military service in a particular year are instead required to pay an extra three per cent ‘military tax’ on their income may have had something to do with it.  To the Swiss military, three per cent of Roger Federer’s income is worth far more than having him patrol the mountains for a couple of weeks!  In the UK and most other countries today we are almost all Roger Federers. Unlike the Swiss, we are no longer conscripted into the armed forces. They find it far more useful to have us earn money, which they can then ‘conscript’ as taxes to pay for their expensive weaponry. But others do not make the linkage as explicit as do the Swiss.

To its consternation, Switzerland has now been refused leave to appeal against a judgement of the European Court of Human Rights (Glor v Switzerland) that threatens to undermine this system. Sven Glor is a lorry driver who suffers from diabetes. Like Federer, he failed the medical for military service. But when he received his military tax bill, he complained. Last year, the European Court on Human Rights found that he was the victim of discrimination.

Back in 1948, when the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted, Quakers argued strongly that it should include an explicit reference to the right of conscientious objection to military service as an aspect of the freedom of thought conscience and religion. This did not happen. As a result, it was not until 2006 that a judgement in an individual case – in fact the co-joined cases of just two among the hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses which South Korea routinely imprisons for 18 months for refusing military service – firmly established that it was contrary to international law to treat conscientious objection to military service as a crime.

(For the full story see ‘Persistent Objectors at the United Nations’ by Rachel Brett in The Friends Quarterly, July 2007.)

Shortly before the European Court on Human Rights decided the Glor case, the Peace Tax Seven, who argue that the right of conscientious objection to military service applies also to paying taxes used for military purposes, learned that their application to the Court would not be heard. This is not the setback it would have been if the court had considered and rejected their arguments, but it does mean that all of us who are deeply troubled by the thought that by paying UK taxes we are helping to fund present and future wars can no longer sit back and hope that this case will oblige our Government to give us the option that our personal tax contributions will not be used for military expenditure. The onus is back on us.

All this underlines just what conservative animals courts are. If they are to make a ruling that moves forward the interpretation of the existing legal standards, they need a case that shows severe suffering (South Korea) or blatant absurdity (Glor).

The campaign for ‘peace tax’ legislation continues. The activities of Conscience in the UK are mirrored in several other countries, notably Canada, the USA, Spain, Belgium, Germany – and Norway, which from 2 to 4 July this year is hosting the thirteenth International Conference of War Tax Resisters and Peace Tax Campaigns (details and registration at www.peacetaxconference.org). But if we are to bring international jurisprudence to our aid, there are two prerequisites.

First: before any court will decide that the right of conscientious objection extends to tax, this must be part of received wisdom. We must work on public opinion, but also get the issue aired in the theoretical discourse on human rights law. The organisation I represent at the UN in Geneva, Conscience and Peace Tax International (www.cpti.ws), has a legal committee working on the one hand on assembling a full documentation of all the cases worldwide concerning objections to the payment of tax for military purposes, and on the other on engaging in dialogue with both practising and academic lawyers. Our resources for this work got a boost when the Lansbury House Trust Fund (LHTF) agreed that restricted donations they receive for research on the legal position of conscientious objection to military taxation could fund relevant activities of our legal committee. As the LHTF is a registered charity, by such donations UK taxpayers can neatly divert tax that would otherwise have partly gone for military purposes towards the long-term goal of establishing conscientious objection to military taxation as a human right.

Second: the courts must be convinced there must be real suffering to be addressed; that indeed, for a significant number of people, to pay towards war is something that does violence to the core of their deepest beliefs. Without the few who feel so strongly about this that they are prepared to disobey the law and suffer the consequences – even though they know their actions will not take a penny from the ‘defence’ budget – it is hard to make out the case that human rights are involved. As this article goes to press, CPTI is preparing to intervene in support of an American tax objector, Frank Donnelly, who was sent for trial in a federal court in the state of Maine, and is now awaiting sentencing for the tax he withheld in 2003 and 2004; he could face up to sixteen months in a federal prison. To pursue a tax objector as a criminal is unusually harsh, but otherwise there does not seem to be anything blatantly inconsistent in this case with United States law as it stands at present. Nevertheless, we argue that any imprisonment would be a breach of Donnelly’s human rights, as it would result directly from the exercise of his freedom of conscience.

Derek is CPTI (Conscience & Peace Tax International) representative to the United Nations, Geneva.

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