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Extreme inequality: a human rights crisis

With economic inequality now reaching historic levels, there is growing concern over the threat it poses to the full spectrum of human rights, from access to quality healthcare and education to political participation and the fair administration of justice.

While the share of wealth accruing to the elite has soared,
ordinary people in most countries have seen their income stagnate
or decline. This image is from Jakarta, Indonesia

To prompt a more effective response by the human rights community to this troubling trend, CESR’s Executive Director, Ignacio Saiz and Deputy Executive Director Gaby Oré Aguilar have been guest-editing a multi-lingual OpenGlobalRights debate on economic inequality and human rights. The first round of contributions kicked off with contrasting viewpoints from Philip Alston and Samuel Moyn in exploring the promise and the potential pitfalls of invoking human rights to combat economic inequality.

While opinions differed over whether economic inequality is intrinsically incompatible with human rights standards and how human rights norms should address extreme concentrations of wealth and power, there is no longer any room for doubt that such disparities are both a cause and a consequence of pervasive human rights infringements, and that our societies would be even more unequal were it not for the existing human rights guarantees to non-discrimination, to primary education, to basic healthcare, to free and fair elections, and to collective bargaining and decent work, among others.

Framing the next round of discussion over the next few months, Ignacio and Gaby set out some of the conceptual, normative, strategic and methodological hurdles to be overcome if the human rights community is to remain relevant to what is broadly agreed to be the defining challenge of our time.

Aiming to explore how best to address some of these hurdles, CESR’s Niko Lusiani joined experts from a broad spectrum of disciplines at a major conference last month on economic inequality and human rights hosted by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. He argued that government laws and policies, more than natural economic rules of an a priori free market, shape economic opportunities and outcomes, and thus must be subject to human rights scrutiny. As tax policy is key in determining economic and social disparities, human rights norms and mechanisms can be used to counter tax injustice and disrupt extreme economic inequality.

In parallel to these conceptual and normative debates, CESR has been leveraging other advocacy spaces to challenge economic disparity. The recently-agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a particularly relevant opportunity as governments agreed in SDG 10 to reduce inequality within and among countries, including by adopting fiscal, wage and social protection policies and improving regulation of the finance sector. However, without proper monitoring and accountability to ensure national and global implementation, this goal stands particular risk of not being met. CESR is working to fill this potential accountability gap by ensuring these political commitments are backed up by the necessary indicators and policy commitments to incentivise appropriate action at the domestic and international levels.

In the run-up to July’s High-Level Political Forum, which reviews and oversees implementation of the SDG agenda, CESR will work in partnership with others to craft a human rights agenda for implementation of Goal 10 at global, regional and national levels, and will campaign in other key advocacy processes to deploy the transformative power of human rights to confront the global injustice of extreme inequality.