Economic inequality and human rights: towards a more nuanced assessment
April 26, 2018
By Ignacio Saiz
Samuel Moyn’s provocative piece in the New York Times faults the human rights movement for failing to address rising economic inequality and other socioeconomic grievances which have contributed to the rise of populist authoritarianism. This criticism is not without merit, as much of the human rights movement has indeed been late to the game on these issues. As with other recent laments about the “end of human rights,” Moyn’s article has generated a lot of attention and knowing nods.
The problem is that his argument is based on a very narrow, partial and inaccurate view of the extraordinary range, diversity and ambition of the global human rights movement. It is particularly baffling that Moyn’s account overlooks the significant efforts of economic and social rights activists worldwide to challenge socioeconomic injustices, including the current escalation in economic inequality.
Questions of “distributional fairness” may not be high on the agenda of international NGOs focusing primarily on civil and political rights, but they have been central to the work of organizations such as the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) that are using human rights strategies to tackle extreme economic inequality and the policy trends that fuel it. Whether exposing the inequitable impacts of austerity measures across the globe or taking tax havens to task at the UN, CESR and its partners have leveraged human rights norms and oversight bodies to press for governmental accountability in areas of policy that have traditionally been rights-free zones, but are critical for the reduction of inequality. Others in the global movement for economic and social rights, from grassroots groups to international coalitions, are fighting unjust trade policies, corporate impunity, the financialization of public goods and many other factors driving the inequality crisis.
Although efforts to deploy the tools of human rights in the fight against economic inequality may seem nascent, it is important to remember the role played by the human rights movement in achieving earlier safeguards against inequality, such as worker’s rights to collective bargaining, the right to primary education or the right to social security. Likewise, without laws against gender and racial discrimination, wealth and income inequalities would be even more gaping. Many of these historic advances are now taken for granted.
Nevertheless, as we argued in our OpenGlobalRights blog series on economic inequality and human rights, there are many challenges the human rights community urgently needs to address if it is to be a relevant actor in the field. These challenges are conceptual, normative, strategic and methodological.
The increasing concentration of wealth needs to be understood not just as an incidental human rights concern, but as an inherent injustice and the product of a web of regressive policies that systematically flout governments’ economic and social rights obligations. How the full panoply of human rights norms can be applied more effectively to constrain the current drivers of economic inequality needs much further exploration. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the treaties that flow from it may be silent on the gap between the rich and the poor, but they have a great deal to say about the policies that perpetuate this disparity. At their core is a concern for substantive equality in all areas of human well-being.
Thanks in part to growing civil society advocacy, human rights oversight mechanisms—from constitutional courts to UN treaty bodies—have become more assertive in applying these norms to challenge or reverse inequality-inducing measures, from the imposition of regressive sales taxes in Colombia to the discriminatory denial of health care to migrants in Spain. But a key strategic challenge is how to take human rights arguments into other arenas of accountability with more direct influence over economic policy-setting, such as the IMF or, at the national level, parliamentary budget committees—bodies which typically deny that ensuring human rights compliance is within their remit.
Forums for accountability in development are also an increasing strategic priority for some rights activists, particularly in light of the new global commitment to reduce inequality. Keeping the spotlight on economic inequality, infusing the fuzzy SDG rhetoric of “leaving no one behind” with human rights content and challenging instrumentalist notions of “women’s empowerment” are among the important contributions human rights can make in this context. It is telling that, while parts of the human rights movement fret over the declining influence of human rights, many development and economic justice advocates including Oxfam have been eager to embrace human rights discourse and tools in their campaigning around extreme inequality. Such relationships with actors beyond the traditional human rights movement are crucial in building broader alliances to fight inequality and can help develop more effective interdisciplinary tools of research and advocacy.
It is valid to ask what impact current human rights strategies can have in confronting the systemic injustices underpinning widening inequalities—an inquiry in which CESR and its allies worldwide are engaged with increased urgency since the turning tide of 2016. But the starting point of any constructive critique should be a nuanced assessment of the current state of the field. The blanket assertion that the human rights movement has “made itself at home in a plutocratic world” and is “drawing the wrong lessons” from the current context loses credibility by leaving out the rich experiences of economic and social rights activists across the globe and the reflective responses to the threat of populism which have emerged from some of the movement’s thought leaders.
The most erroneous lesson of all would be to give up on human rights as a counter-power to the ravages of neoliberalism based on such a selective and distorted reading of the challenges in the field. There is evidence for hope that human rights—understood holistically—can be an effective bulwark against the deprivations and disparities driven by market fundamentalism. This is no time to abandon the challenges this entails. Instead, we must learn from and build on the initiatives and alliances worldwide which have successfully invoked the transformative power of human rights to tackle the injustice of extreme inequality.