Human Rights in Tax Policy

Taxation is a crucial instrument for the realization of human rights, not just because it is necessary for ensuring sufficient resources, but also because tax policy plays a fundamental role in redressing inequalities and in shaping how accountable governments are to their people.

Yet many countries struggle to collect sufficient revenue to fund public services essential for people to realize fundamental rights such as to health, education, housing, access to justice and an adequate standard of living. Meanwhile, unjust tax systems, at both the national and global levels, too often fuel rising inequality and widening disparities in human rights enjoyment, shifting the ‘burden’ of taxation onto society’s least well-off and concentrating wealth in the hands of a privileged few. In recent years, this basic unfairness has eroded trust in government institutions, which are often perceived as more accountable to economic elites and international donors than to their own people.

The inadequacy and inequity of tax regimes is also a growing issue in debates over implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Domestic resource mobilization has increasingly been recognized as a key determinant of poverty eradication, while the role of large-scale tax evasion, including through the use of secrecy jurisdictions and transfer mispricing, in undermining development has become clear.

Against this backdrop, human rights standards offer a powerful, universal and comprehensive normative framework in which to ground claims for tax justice. The duty to devote the ‘maximum available resources’ to economic, social and cultural rights gives legal force to demands for effective and equitable taxation systems which contribute to the realization of human rights for all, while the principles of ‘equality’ and ‘non-discrimination’, as elucidated in international standards, can reinforce understandings of 'equity', a concept often trumped in traditional tax discourse by the pursuit of ‘efficiency’. By recasting the relationship between human beings and state institutions in terms of rights-holders and corresponding duty-bearers, human rights can also contribute to greater accountability, participation and responsiveness in matters of fiscal policy. Moreover, framing tax as a human rights issue takes it beyond the elite technocratic sphere and into the arena of legitimate public scrutiny and debate.

Multidisciplinary collaboration between the tax justice community and the human rights movement remains relatively nascent, however. There is a pressing need to explore how the standards, instruments and mechanisms of human rights can be better deployed to bolster the resourcing, redistributive and accountability functions of taxation.

For over a decade, CESR has been using innovative methodologies to trace the link between resource generation and rights fulfillment. Our groundbreaking work to confront the human rights impacts of tax abuse facilitated by countries such as Switzerland and the UK builds on earlier projects highlighting regressive fiscal policies in Guatemala, Ireland, Spain and Egypt, along with international advocacy efforts on key issues such as the financial transaction tax and the incorporation of tax justice in the post-2015 sustainable development goals.

CESR is also working to strengthen the capacity of tax justice and human rights advocates to work together, through the production of new tools and resources, and the creation of spaces to develop a common knowledge and advocacy base. These efforts build upon CESR’s collaboration with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights in drafting a report on fiscal policy and human rights.

Through our partnerships with tax justice, human rights and development organizations, CESR is also challenging unfair tax policies in a variety of settings, including in the contexts of austerity in Europe and Latin America. With partners in Brazil, it mobilized the international human rights system into action against a constitutional amendment imposing a 20-year fiscal freeze.

CESR co-convenes the Working Group on Tax and Human Rights of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice, along with the Brazilian NGO Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (INESC). The Working Group aims to leverage human rights standards, instruments and mechanisms to combat international tax abuse. We are also fighting for progressive fiscal policies as a critical tool in the realization of gender equality and women’s rights.

As we look to the future in a world wrought with increasing inequalities alongside increasing resource scarcity, tax justice is sure to become an evermore urgent issue. CESR and its partners will be working closely to unleash the powerful potential of a human rights-centered approach to taxation.

To learn more about CESR’s work on human rights in tax policy, contact Niko Lusiani, Director of Human Rights in Economic Policy, at