Tax Resistance News and Conscientious Objection History

Tax resistance news from hither and yon:

A new publication from the “University for Peace” concerns conscientious objection to military service, and includes some mention of conscientious objection to military taxation as well, particularly in the chapter by Derek Brett on “Human rights advocacy and implementation of conscientious objection”:

The most obvious extension of the concept of conscientious objection to military service is however in the field of taxation. As historically it has usually been to fund military expenditures that taxes have first been levied, there are ancient precedents. Canonized in for his refusal as Bishop of Lincoln to pay taxes to fund the French wars, St Hugh is now regarded as the patron saint of the peace tax movement. Gross traces the modern tax resistance back to the revolt against Charles ’s “ship money” which led to the English Civil War of the mid-17th Century. However, on that occasion the revolt was not against the use of the tax to raise a navy, but against the King’s circumventing Parliament in order to do so.

Ironically, but perhaps appropriately, it was however against those who coined the slogan “no taxation without representation” that “war tax resistance” first came into prominence. Quakers corporately refused to pay the taxes imposed to pay for the American Revolutionary War, and they were joined by members of the other “historic peace churches” — many Mennonites and some Brethren. Property was seized and auctioned, and many were jailed.

Nevertheless, it was a non-pacifist, Henry David Thoreau, who established himself as the prophet of the modern war tax resistance movement with his pamphlet “Resistance to Civilian Government (Civil Disobedience)” where he wrote about his experience of imprisonment in for refusing to pay the poll tax levied in Massachusetts for the Mexican-American war.

, many Quaker Yearly Meetings in the USA continued nominally to support war tax resistance, but the issue was almost forgotten until , when a specifically-named “Defence Tax” levy of 10% was added to income tax in the USA. A number of organizations, including the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the (Quaker) American Friends Service Committee, called for a recognition of conscientious objector status for taxpayers. Few however actually resisted; until the Viet Nam war only six war tax refusers were imprisoned, all of them nominally for contempt of court.

Once again, it took not just a war, but a deeply unpopular war, to spark widespread tax refusal. An inestimable boost was given to the movement when just before tax day the singer Joan Baez announced that she was withholding 60% of her (not inconsiderable) tax bill for in protest at the war. Initiatives and supporters mushroomed, the emphasis generally being on practical measures to deprive government of revenue, rather than asserting any freedom of conscience right, although the latter soon followed. Taxes specifically earmarked for military purposes have always attracted more opposition; thus it is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 persons refused to pay the earmarked telephone tax whereas by the end of the war perhaps 20,000 were withholding some or all of their income tax.

It so happened that the embroilment of the USA in the Viet Nam war coincided with the end of conscription in the United Kingdom. While there was no longer an opportunity to take a stand of conscientious objection against conscription into military service, some were quick to point out that all were arguably being conscripted into paying for military expenditure, so the possibility of taking a stand of conscientious objection was open to all. In , Quakers in Kent brought to the Society of Friends nationally an appeal for a legal right of conscientious objection to the conscription of income “for what they regarded as immoral purposes, contrary to the Spirit and teaching of Christ”, pointing out that modern war required large sums of money rather than large armies.

Meanwhile, resistance in Switzerland, particularly before there was any recognition of conscientious objectors to military service, was focused on the special military exemption tax which had to be paid by all men of the liable age who did not perform military service in any particular year. This system has subsequently twice been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights as discriminatory, but in cases which did not involve opposition to military expenditure as such.

The movement appears to have suddenly “gone global” at the beginning of the 1980s. In the UK, “Conscience—the Peace Tax Campaign” was founded in , followed over the next three years by national campaigns in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany (Netzwerk Friedenssteuer), Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Campaigns in France, Japan, and Switzerland were already underway. The first of the ongoing sequence of International Conferences of War Tax Resisters and Peace Tax Campaigns took place in Tübingen, Germany in ; in , the decision was taken to found Conscience and Peace Tax International (CPTI) to lobby on the issue at the international level.

It might be generalized that in Europe and other parts of the world the tax objection movement has largely been distinguished from the American antecedents by seeking legal recognition of a means to object, and even in “peacetime”, rather than seeking to deny funding for an unpopular war. That said, it was in the USA that the first attempt at legislation was made in in the Bill brought forward by Congressman Ronald Dellums, “the World Peace Tax Fund Act”; a similar Bill was brought forward in the Senate by Senator Mark Hatfield in . The National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund was founded to support these efforts, and with its assistance bills have been brought forward in each subsequent Congress, for many years by the late Senator John Lewis of Georgia, former ally of Martin Luther King.

In , Bills were put forward in the Parliaments of Belgium, Germany, and the UK to allow conscientious objection to the payment of taxes for military expenditure. These were followed by Bills in Australia, the Netherlands and Italy (all ), Canada (), Norway (), and Spain (). In many cases, the attempt at legislation has — so far — been one-off, but in Belgium for many years and still in the United Kingdom and Germany, bills are put forward at regular intervals.

The first attempt to appeal such a case internationally was by Tony Croft in the case of C v UK under the European Convention on Human Rights. The then Commission found the case inadmissible, as it did in in a case concerning the agreement of Quaker Peace and Service to withhold taxes on behalf of Quaker staff. In C v UK, the Commission found “The obligation to pay taxes is a general one which has no specific conscientious implications in itself. Its neutrality in this sense is also illustrated by the fact that no tax payer can influence or determine the purpose for which his or her contributions are applied, once they are collected.” In , the European Court itself declared inadmissible the appeal from the Peace Tax Seven by reference to the decision of the Commission in C v UK.

In , a Canadian Quaker doctor, Jerilynn Prior, was the author of a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee. This case was likewise deemed inadmissible by the Committee: “Although article 18 of the Covenant certainly protects the right to hold, express and disseminate opinions and convictions, including conscientious objection to military activities and expenditures, the refusal to pay taxes on grounds of conscientious objection clearly falls outside the scope of protection of this article.”

This precedent was followed in dismissing two further communications brought to the Committee, JvK & CMGvK v Netherlands and KV & CV v Germany. In the second, the case was further inadmissible on the grounds that the facts concerned a date before Germany had acceded to the Optional Protocol which grants the right of individual communication under the Covenant. Had it been considered on its merits, would the fact that it came subsequent to General Comment no. 22 have made any difference?

Certainly the upsurge of activism on tax objection around the turn of the century was boosted by the progress which was being made at the time with regard to the recognition of a right of conscientious objection to military service. However, arguments for the expansion of that recognition into the field of taxation were logical and theoretical only, whereas the advances with regard to military service had been carried forward by substantial and continuing developments in State practice, to which context General Comment no. 22 itself pointedly refers. By contrast, there is not a single instance of a precedent in national practice with regard to tax objection.

Brett is a board member of Conscience and Peace Tax International, and served for several years as its UN representative.