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Fighting inequality in a shaken world

The widening chasm between the haves and have-nots of the world was a key factor in recent shocks at the polling booths in both the US and UK. Now more than ever, it has become clear that rampant and unchecked economic inequality is an issue the human rights movement and its allies cannot afford to ignore.

As the international community comes to terms with a dramatically changed political landscape, it must be remembered that recent global commitments to build a more just future are still in place. The inclusion of a standalone goal on inequalities in the new Sustainable Development Agenda was a crucial and hard-fought victory for civil society activists involved in the 2030 Agenda negotiations. The promise of a more equal world, as set out in SDG10, is a pledge that can and must be honored in the years ahead.

Achieving this goal will require a radical departure from the development paradigm of the past, however. What’s more, accomplishing these changes will necessarily involve challenging entrenched political interests and delivering a serious and sustained redistribution of resources; a task that will inevitably face considerable resistance. The human rights movement will face new challenges, which it must meet with renewed determination.

With this increasingly urgent situation in mind, CESR is proud to present a new briefing setting out a human rights-based policy agenda to address economic inequality in the years ahead. ‘From Disparity to Dignity: Tackling economic inequality through the sustainable development goals’ shows how the human right principles of non-discrimination, substantive equality and the deployment of ‘maximum available resources’ for the realization of human rights can provide normative guidance for the implementation of SDG10.

Arguably the most crosscutting of the 17 Goals, SDG10 addresses various forms of inequality, including both horizontal inequalities – between different groups along the lines of gender, race, ethnicity or disability status, for example – and vertical inequalities, between various levels of economic wellbeing. It has been shown that extreme economic inequality, in particular, interacts with and exacerbates every other form of inequality.  Meanwhile, unchecked economic inequality undermines progress on poverty reduction, education and health outcomes, and social cohesion, and as such the international community’s success or failure in achieving SDG10 will have a determinative impact on many of the other SDGs.

Being mindful of the pressing need to reduce such disparities, the briefing shows how human rights standards connect to critically important redistributive policies in the areas of social protection, health and taxation. The document also examines the ‘pre-distributive’ policies through which governments determine market outcomes and who benefits from them; these include policies in the areas of employment and labor rights, care and family leave and financial regulation, all of which have a tremendous impact on various forms of inequality.

The briefing also elucidates the crucial importance of international cooperation and coordination on issues like cross-border tax abuse and democratic reforms of global economic governance, and how these relate to standing human rights obligations.

It must be underlined that SDG10 is especially vulnerable to strategic neglect. The fact that there is no UN agency or set of international institutions dedicated specifically to the issue of inequality – and to driving actions towards its reduction - marks it apart from most of the other SDGs as an ‘orphan goal’. The High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which is mandated to oversee progress towards the SDGs, falls far short of the kind of robust accountability system needed. It is for precisely this reason that human rights standards, and the various human rights oversight bodies that monitor them, can play a particularly important role in tracking SDG10 and pushing for progress.

‘From Disparity to Dignity’ also examines the significant weaknesses of the official targets and indicators proposed for the monitoring of SDG10, and shows how human rights can help provide more robust measures that both civil society organizations and human rights bodies can use to drive change.

The long-standing trend of rising inequality was a key factor in recent events that may engender new threats to the human rights of all people. In the light of such happenings, it is incumbent on political leaders, activists and all those who believe in human rights to confront this blight of extreme inequality. It is CESR’s hope and belief that ‘From Disparity to Dignity’ can prove a potent resource for all those interested in using human rights to make the promise of SDG10 a reality.