In a ‘broken system,’ can the UN human rights machinery tilt the balance to help reverse rising inequalities?

by Amalia Ordóñez Vahí, Researcher, URG Inequality and social rights

‘We are going backwards, inequalities are skyrocketing, climate change is burning and pounding our planet, and the number of people living in severe poverty has risen, for the first time in a generation. […] The system is broken.’ These were the sombre words chosen by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, to open the Sixth Intersessional Meeting of the Human Rights Council on human rights and the 2030 Agenda (18 January 2024).

Since 2020, the world’s five richest men have doubled their fortunes, while almost five billion people globally have become poorer. In a world where 685 million people are estimated to live in extreme poverty (that is, subsisting on less than $2.15 per day), the human rights implications of these asymmetries are self-evident. Not only do inequalities affect material conditions and wealth, but their repercussions on living conditions have a direct bearing on the enjoyment of human rights: almost 6 million people die annually due to lack of medical care, approximately 2.1 million people die from hunger, and 17% of the world’s children, mostly in developing countries, do not have access to education. The consequences of inequality also extend to other human rights, such as the newly recognised right to a clean, healthy and sustainble environment: people in poorer countries are at a higher risk of diseases derived from the impacts of climate change, like malaria, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, while it is estimated that 68 to 135 million people could be pushed into poverty by 2030 due to impacts from climate change.

The international human rights community is paying increasing attention to inequality and its drivers (e.g., tax policy), even if human rights advocates have, in the past, tended to shy away from such issues. The COVID-19 health pandemic acted as an accelerator for this shift, bringing debates in the Human Rights Council more into line with political discussions held in other forums such as the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, as well as conversations on, for example, the reform of the international financial architecture, debt and development financing, and tax justice (including the ongoing work towards a UN global tax convention).

In all these spaces, there is growing acknowledgement both that equality is a necessary condition for the full enjoyment of human rights, and that human rights are a tool towards the achievement of equality. As recently noted by the Independent Expert on foreign debt, Professor Attiya Waris, ‘rights require resources, but resources also require rights.’

Recent years have seen significant movement to one particular driver of inequality: unfair tax.

Even though the UN has for a time long time held only a limited role in this area, particularly in terms of conversations on global tax governance, over recent years it has started to become much more assertive, spearheaded by Secretary-General Guterres’ efforts to tackle what he has called the defining issue of our time. In mid-2023, Guterres published a report advocating for an enhanced role for the UN in international taxation ‘norm-shaping and rule setting.’ These moves towards greater multilateral engagement on issues that have traditionally been seen as the prerogative of individual States (or, at best, small groups of States such as the G7), are driven by interlinked concerns over the achievement of the SDGs ‘leaving no one behind’ and the realisation of human rights for all, without discrimination.

With the increasing realisation of the terrible human rights impacts of inequality, and the ‘flip side’ that human rights (especially economic and social rights) cannot be realised without adequately resourced public health systems, housing policies, social security policies, etc., there is also a growing imperative for the Human Rights Council, and the wider human rights system, to engage. In the area of global tax reform, for example, States should not only focus on the macro-economic or commercial implications of unfair tax competition between countries, but must also focus on the importance of fair tax policies for rights-holders.

It is also critical, from a human rights perspective (especially the human rights of people in the developing world), that discussions on global tax reform are inclusive – a point underlined in a recent letter from a group of Special Procedures mandate-holders to the OECD Secretary-General. The letter criticised the non-representative nature of the OECD’s proposal for an international framework to combat tax avoidance (given the organisation’s 38-county membership).

Mobilising the human rights system to address inequality

As noted above, after a long period of apathy, the Council and the wider human rights pillar of the UN are increasingly occupied by the issue of inequality. At the last session of the Council in September-October, two resolutions were adopted on the issue of inequality, and its impacts on economic, social, and cultural rights, one led by China and one by Portugal. The former came with significant new resources for OHCHR to expand its activities to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights. That will allow OHCHR to build on existing work in this area such as  the Surge Initiative, launched in 2019 by the-then High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, and the current High Commissioner’s new drive to build ‘human rights economies.’

Yet the human rights system needs to do much more if it is to help contribute to reducing inequalities around the world. In particular, the ‘business end’ of the system (the main human rights mechanisms – which extend tailored recommendations to States) needs to mobilise to a greater degree.

In particular, the Treaty Bodies and UPR should be far more engaged on questions of inequality and how to address it. So far, only the Special Procedures have focused, to any great extent, on inequality, its drivers, and consequences for human rights. Perhaps the most progressive mandate has been the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty. Respective mandate-holders have been extremely vocal on the social injustices and human rights violations caused by inequality, and have sharply criticised States, especially rich States, for failing to adopt tax and social policies to address the matter. They have also offered progressive proposals for change, calling on States, inter alia, to analyse the distributional impact of tax policies on different population groups, to establish progressive tax systems, and to increase social security expenditure and investment. The current Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Olivier de Schutter, has advocated for an employment guarantee to ensure the realisation of the right to work (with the State acting as an employer of last resort), the creation of a global fund for social protection to support low-income countries, and the reinforcement of minimum living wages. Likewise, his predecessor, Philip Alston, reflected on the idea of establishing a universal basic income to replace social protection systems, called for more redistributive taxation policies, and urged States to bring the questions of resource generation and redistribution ‘into the human rights equation.’

Whether or not one agrees with their proposals, these mandate-holders have nonetheless demonstrated that the international human rights system, including international human rights law, has plenty to say about the availability of resources, their allocation and fair distribution, and how this can feed into efforts to reduce inequalities. This, however,  must go beyond looking at inequalities from the prism of poverty, to address both the structural drivers underlying inequalities of outcomes and of opportunity – i.e., the distribution of material wealth and access to resources – as well as their impact on the enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights.

It is of course true that the Council, the mechanisms, and OHCHR alone cannot solve the problem of rising global inequalities. However, they can and must work to understand the normative relationship between human rights and inequality, they can and must extend more recommendations to States to address the key drivers of inequality, and they can and must share information on the relationship between human rights and inequality with other relevant parts of the international system, including international financial institutions, development institutions, and the international debt and global tax architectures.

Image credit: Jon Tyson

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