Inequality takes centre stage at the Human Rights Council

by Amalia Ordóñez Vahí, Researcher, URG Inequality and social rights, Thematic human rights issues

We are living in ‘an age of massive concentration of wealth, and unprecedented inequalities,’ an ‘abyss [has opened] between rich and poor [that] harms everyone.’ With these words, pronounced in his opening global update at the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, High Commissioner Volker Türk cast the spotlight on inequality, an issue that has been gaining ground in the human rights agenda since the adoption of the SDGs, and particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Türk stressed the paradoxical nature of our age: wealth is massively concentrated within a small percentage of the population – the richest 10% own 76% of total global wealth – while almost half of the world population lives in heavily indebted countries that are unable to invest in the SDGs. More than half of the world is being left behind, partly as a result of the SDG funding gap.

As the world approaches the halfway point on the path towards the completion of the 2030 Agenda, record-high and increasing inequalities are hindering progress towards the achievement of the SDGs. This involves not only the lack of progress in achieving SDG10 itself, which focuses on the reduction of inequality, but also diminishing trust in institutions (including democratic institutions), which seem incapable of effectively tackling poverty and hunger, and improving gender equality and access to education, healthcare, etc. Moreover, inequality is not only a major obstacle to the realisation of human rights, it is also lethal – according to Oxfam inequality contributes to the death of at least one person every four seconds.

What do we talk about when we talk about inequality?

Inequality can be understood merely from the economic perspective, that is, in terms of income or wealth, or it can be conceived in a broader sense to encompass disparities in living conditions. Development theory differentiates between inequality of outcome – which mostly deals with the unequal distribution of material wealth – and inequality of opportunity, which accounts for unequal access to resources, and which dictates a person’s material and personal well-being. Inequality of opportunity is largely determined by an individual’s circumstances at birth, but it is also influenced by choices and capabilities that shape an individual’s living conditions. Inequality of outcome is, therefore, easier to measure objectively, and traditional approaches to assessing it tended to focus on income as a proxy for well-being. Conversely, inequality of opportunity is more difficult to quantify, as it places more emphasis on a person’s socio-economic context.

Another distinction can be drawn between horizontal and vertical inequalities. The former applies to inequalities between socially constructed groups, e.g., those determined by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, or religion. Given that non-discrimination is a core value of the human rights framework and ‘a corollary of the principle of equality,’ issues related to horizontal inequalities are cross-cutting throughout the international human rights system, especially in the mandates and work of the human rights mechanisms (e.g., Special Procedures mandates focusing on People of African Descent, persons with disabilities, or discrimination against women and girls). In contrast, vertical inequality refers to variations between individuals or households and is therefore assessed in terms of income and wealth, through measures like the Gini coefficient and the Palma ratio.

Over the last four decades approaches to understanding inequality have shifted from being outcome-oriented to acknowledging the importance of inequalities of opportunity. From the 1970s until the early 2010s, international development policies focused mostly on poverty reduction: the first objective of the 2000 Millennium Development Goals was the eradication of extreme poverty. However, as the 2015 deadline for the MDGs drew closer, both their progress and shortcomings became evident, especially the fact that most inroads were concentrated in a few countries with sustained income growth and targeted policies in critical services. As a result, at the time of the development of the post-2015 framework, there was increased interest in inequalities in living standards and access to opportunities, widening the policy focus from poverty reduction to addressing inequalities of opportunity and non-discrimination in accessing and realising economic and social rights.

The enjoyment of human rights cannot be understood in a vacuum; their effective realisation is dependent on both income and wealth, but also on the political, social, and economic context – as illustrated by the worsening of within- and between-country inequalities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, it is now widely accepted that efforts to combat inequality should not be geared only towards reducing poverty, but also towards addressing horizontal inequalities at the domestic and international levels.

What is the international human rights system doing to tackle inequalities?

In a human rights context, including in the context of the work of the UN human rights system, inequality and its human rights implications can be grouped into four interlinked clusters: the progressive realisation of and access to economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR); equality and non-discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights; redistribution, taxation – including policies to address tax havens and tax avoidance, and trade/debt policies; and corruption, transparency, and accountability. For years, and especially galvanised by the COVID-19 health pandemic, the international human rights system has been exploring ways to step up efforts to address inequalities across these clusters.

The creation of SDG10 as a standalone goal to reduce inequality was a promising development as part of the post-MDG framework. However, as of 2023, it is among the goals least on track to meet their respective targets. Its indicators include both vertical (income growth, household expenditure) and horizontal inequalities (social, economic, and political inclusion, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status). According to data collected by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Universal Human Rights Index, around 10% of the recommendations from the human rights mechanisms can be directly linked to SDG10, making it one of the most linked SDGs, behind only SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions – around 40% of recommendations), SDG5 (gender equality), and SDG8 (decent work and economic growth).

Over recent years, the UN human rights system has paid increasing attention to strengthening the enjoyment of human rights through reshaping the global economic architecture. In 2019, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established the Surge Initiative, which links human rights and macro-economics at the country and regional levels, in an effort to place human rights at the centre of policy-making, including by providing financial and technical support to in-country and regional OHCHR presences for ‘seeding-change’ country projects.

Since taking office in 2022, High Commissioner Türk has dedicated considerable effort to mobilising the UN’s human rights system to more effectively address inequality. In particular, Türk has pushed the concept of the ‘human rights economy,’ which tries to measure and highlight the human rights impacts of economic policies, and position human rights as being central to policy design and decision-making processes. According to Türk, this includes developing ‘budgets, taxation, trade policies, consumption and production patterns, investment decisions and business models that fully comply with every country’s human rights obligations, including the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.’ By placing inclusive participation and social dialogue over profit in decision-making, ‘human rights economies’ go beyond GDP as a measure of success and well-being. Rather, they aim to ‘deliver better results for people and planet’ by advancing ESCR and contributing to a fair distribution of resources.

What lies ahead in the fight against inequality?

States have a duty under international human rights law to provide an environment conducive to the progressive realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, including through international assistance and cooperation. To achieve this, the international human rights system holds a unique position to provide assistance and guidance towards the fulfilment of those obligations.

For the human rights mechanisms to better contribute to the reduction of inequality, and the achievement of SDG10, they must be able to integrate inequality (across all of the aforementioned ‘clusters’) more comprehensively into their recommendations. This includes adopting a comprehensive approach to inequality within and between countries, including within developed States. In that regard, several Special Rapporteurs have addressed ‘shockingly high’ inequalities in developed countries, and raised the bar for their examination, arguing that ‘the level of scrutiny for developed States [should be] higher than for middle-income or low-income countries,’ given their differentiated resources.

For the High Commissioner’s appeal for the emergence of ‘human rights economies’ to be realised, a reform of the international financial fabric is needed to tackle the systemic causes of inequality. This should be based on States’ international human rights obligations (including the obligation of international cooperation) and should include inter alia: strengthening multilateral and bilateral cooperation, reinforcing the integration of human rights across international financial institutions, taking concrete action on debt relief and fair international trade, focusing more on equality of opportunity in access to economic and social rights (especially in access to the right to education), and being willing to discuss redistribution through progressive taxation policies. It should also involve investing in social security systems, and eradicating corruption and illicit financial flows that hamper the delivery of public services.

Finally, as the 2030 Agenda deadline closes in, in order to put progress on SDG10 back on track, the international community should listen to the calls from economists and development experts for a re-evaluation of how SDG10 is conceived and measured, for a strengthening of its targets, and for a shift to indicators that measure both wealth and income inequality, both between countries and within them. Unity and policy coherence across the economic and human rights spheres will be key to achieving the ‘collective ambition to forge a more equal world.’

Photo credit: Milo Miloezger on Unsplash

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