Extreme Inequality as the Antithesis of Human Rights
Extreme inequality directly undermines human rights, and is a cause for shame for the human rights community.
By Philip Alston / opendemocracy.net
Nov 2, 2015

A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Economic Inequality and Human Rights. EspañolFrançaisالعربية

A world in which the richest 1% owns 48% of global wealth, and in which this imbalance continues to accelerate, is obscene. Radical inequality inevitably sustains extreme poverty just as surely as it sustains extreme wealth. And extreme poverty is best defined as a condition in which the vast majority of human rights cannot possibly be realized. In other words, inequality is not just as an economic issue, but also one of human rights.

International economic actors like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have begun to speak about the negative economic consequences of such inequalities. Yet it is no coincidence that these are the very same organizations that steadfastly resist policies that will factor human rights into their policies and programs. Of course, it is not so much the organizations themselves that are to blame, but the governments that control them. It is telling that, when economic and financial issues are raised in the Human Rights Council, someone invariably makes the argument that it is not the appropriate forum and these matters should be dealt with elsewhere. And when efforts are made to raise human rights in the economic forums, the same governments insist that these issues be addressed in the Human Rights Council. They seek, in other words, to silo off issues that are deeply intertwined.

Extreme inequality should also be seen as a cause for shame on the part of the international human rights movement. Extreme inequality should also be seen as a cause for shame on the part of the international human rights movement. Just as global economic institutions have eschewed human rights, so too have the major human rights groups avoided tackling the economics of rights. These lop-sided and counter-productive institutional choices should not, however, be conflated with the actual structure of human rights law. It is patent nonsense to claim, as Samuel Moyn does, that “even perfectly realized human rights, are compatible with … radical inequality,” or that human rights “have nothing to say about inequality.”

Economic and social rights are a core part of human rights and we should be careful not to equate the determined effort made by the United States over several decades to deny and undermine the status of these rights with the realities outside the US. Human rights bodies interpreting the norm of equality have long emphasized that formal equality is not an adequate substitute for the kinds of substantive equality that is required by human rights principles, even if there is no freestanding “right to equality”, as such, in human rights law.

Even in the realm of civil and political rights, there is a growing realization that the capture of the political process by the extreme rich, a trend that has long been frowned upon when it occurs blatantly in developing countries, is now a very real threat in developed countries, including the United States itself.

These developments should be heard as a clarion call to the human rights movement. Questions of resources and redistribution can no longer be ignored as part of human rights advocacy. The leading human rights NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, need to overcome their deep reluctance to factor such issues into their research, analysis and advocacy. The result of their current failure to do so is that, for all of their excellent work in exposing the magnitude of a specific range of civil and political rights violations, the deeper structures and systems that sustain extreme poverty and ignore extreme inequalities are effectively left in place. The status quo thus effectively remains untouched.

Filipino youths view downtown Manila from a rooftop in a poorer neighborhood.
Flickr/John Christian Fjellestad (Some rights reserved)

Linked to this is the need for human rights proponents to reflect more deeply on the relationship between resources and the nature of the obligation to ensure respect for civil and political rights. Existing approaches have all too often been premised on the delusion that resource considerations are not relevant in evaluating governmental compliance with the relevant international obligations. As a result, questions of the availability of resources and equality of access to those resources have largely been eliminated from the most vibrant parts of the international human rights system, and relegated instead to the minor league discussions about economic, social and cultural rights. In the latter context, ironically, they were given overwhelming importance, such that the qualification contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—that a state’s obligations extended only to the maximum of its available resources—is often invoked to excuse abusive instances of non-compliance.

More generally, the human rights community needs to address directly the extent to which extreme inequality undermines human rights. One starting point is to clearly recognize that there are limits to the degree of inequality that can be reconciled with notions of equality, dignity and commitments to human rights for everyone. Governments should formally commit to policies explicitly designed to eliminate extreme inequality. Economic and social rights must become an integral part of human rights programs. A concerted campaign to ensure that every state has a social protection floor in place would signal a transformation in this regard. That concept—initially elaborated by the International Labour Organization, subsequently endorsed by the UN and now even by the World Bank—draws upon the experience of a range of countries around the world that have successfully tackled poverty in terms of programs with universal coverage, formulated in terms of human rights and of domestic legal entitlements.

Finally, the realization that tax policy is, in many respects, human rights policy—a concept long championed by vanguard organizations such as the Center for Economic and Social Rights—needs to be embraced by the human rights community at large. The regressive or progressive nature of a state’s tax structure, and the groups and purposes for which it gives exemptions or deductions, shapes the allocation of income and assets across the population. This unavoidably affects levels of inequality and human rights enjoyment. Appropriate redistributive measures through fiscal policies are indispensable for ensuring full respect for human rights.

Far from having little to say about economic inequality, human rights demand that states reject extreme inequality and formally commit themselves to policies explicitly designed to reduce if not eliminate it. Such policies must take economic, social and cultural rights into account as seriously as civil and political rights. They must ensure social protection floors and fiscal regimes aimed at reducing inequality and realizing rights for all. If the human rights movement is to spur states to adopt such an agenda for equality, it will need first to correct its own gaps and biases, including by revitalizing normative understandings of equality, and putting questions of resources and redistribution back into the human rights equation.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence
0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 14,998 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
Trump Is a Symptom of a Sickness That Is Raging All Across The World
1 min · 12,998 views today · This is why we are here. And this is what we need to remember. 
What Is My Activism Really About? to Love, Serve and Remember
Tim Hjersted · 5,665 views today · I have made a promise to this world that I will carry with me to my last days. It is my vow to lessen the suffering of the world while I am here - it is to ensure that every...
Escape! From the Cult of Materialism (2016)
50 min · 3,474 views today · Does the philosophy of materialism work to destroy our identities, experience, and environment? Join narrator Daphne Ellis on a radical romp through the evidence and decide for...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,151 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 1,551 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Looking Forward to the Day That Nationalism Is as Reviled as Racism
Tim Hjersted · 1,407 views today · Nationalism is a form of geographical racism that makes some lives matter more than others, and explicitly justifies that logic without apology. While today, not even lying...
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 997 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 678 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss: Bracing for Trump's Anti-Worker, Corporate Agenda
Colin Jenkins · 655 views today · Rich people don’t have to have a life-and-death relationship with the truth and its questions; they can ignore the truth and still thrive materially. I am not surprised many...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 590 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 550 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 534 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Supporters 'Ecstatic' After Obama Commutes Chelsea Manning's Sentence
Nika Knight · 481 views today · Whistleblower to be released from military prison in May
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 386 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 311 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
10 Female Revolutionaries That You Probably Didn't Learn About In History class
Kathleen Harris · 311 views today · We all know male revolutionaries like Che Guevara, but history often tends to gloss over the contributions of female revolutionaries that have sacrificed their time, efforts...
Watch How Europeans Carved Up African Land They Never Owned
56 min · 284 views today · Watch how Europeans gave away African land they never owned, then expressed anger when Africans resisted. The film is called Africa: A Voyage of Discovery, Episode 6: The...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 276 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 249 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Extreme Inequality as the Antithesis of Human Rights