Building the foundation for tax justice through human rights

For years, the tax justice and human rights movements have worked along parallel paths to confront the rampant inequality and socio-economic deprivation that result from unfair fiscal policies and blight the lives of billions. These two communities of practice joined forces together last week in Lima, Peru for an international strategy meeting, Advancing Tax Justice through Human Rights, to build a platform for strategy-exchange and alliance-forming.


Oxfam President and former Minister of Finance of Guatemala Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight addresses the opening of the meeting. He was accompanied on the panel of the first session by (from left) John Christensen, Tax Justice Network; Shirley Pouget, International Bar Association Human Rights Institute; Ignacio Saiz, CESR; and Radhika Balakrishnan, Center for Womens Global Leadership at Rutgers University.



“At present, the bottom line is that most human rights specialists don’t appreciate the centrality of tax and the vast majority of tax specialists have very little idea about how human rights are relevant,” the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, explained in a special video message. “This conference is a fantastic beginning to bringing these two constituencies together and really moving forward in a much more constructive way.”



Co-organized by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, Tax Justice Network, Oxfam, Global Alliance for Tax Justice, LatinDADD, and Red de Justicia Fiscal de América Latina y el Caribe, this landmark event on 29 and 30 April brought together economists, tax experts, development professionals, academics, strategic litigators and human rights practitioners from all over the planet.  Over two days, participants explored the links between tax and human rights, and shared experiences, strategies and skills on how human rights principles could be more effectively applied for tax and fiscal justice.



Examples from around the world showed how mass-scale tax evasion within and across borders deprive governments of the resources they need to fulfil their human rights and development commitments.  Inequitable tax policies, such as the wave of austerity measures which have swept the globe in recent years, have perpetuated inequalities of all kinds and placed a disproportionate burden on women and others facing systemic discrimination. Unaccountable tax regimes have protected the wealth and privilege of corporate elites at the expense of the human rights of the whole population.



The breadth and depth of the dialogue in Lima reflected the pervasive role of tax and fiscal policy in all areas of human rights. Participants illustrated in very practical ways why the realization of human rights depends on tax policy, and vice versa, why the movement for tax justice needs to engage with human rights.  A rich variety of experiences of applying human rights norms and mechanisms to challenge unjust tax policies were shared from all regions of the world, demonstrating the maturity of the work already in action to make tax policy a matter of human rights. Participants discussed a broad range of concrete instances in which invoking human rights could transform tax policy into a proactive means of, for instance, combating gender inequality; holding transnational companies, their enablers and the public facilitators of cross-border tax abuse accountable; making income and capital taxes more progressive; promoting more participatory budgetting, and regulating investment to ensure it contributes to fighting inequality.


Many of the participants also took part in Lima's Mayday march,
organized by national unions. Here TJN's Liz Nelson is seen
carrying a joint banner with Jorge Coronado from Red de Justicia Fiscal
“I am convinced that linking human rights to fiscal policy is highly important,” emphasized Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, Oxfam chair and former Minister of Finance of Guatemala. “Human rights provide the possibility of reconstructing a broken social and fiscal compact.”



Two days of intense exchange yielded a number of concrete opportunities for collaborative research and advocacy, not least within the UN Financing for Development debate, the various regional economic and political integration processes and the budding movement to improve global governance of tax policy. A range of concrete ideas emerged for how to consolidate this growing platform for advancing human rights through tax and fiscal justice, such as making more effective use of domestic, regional and international human rights protection bodies to address tax injustice, convening tax law and human rights law practitioners for more constructive dialogue and building stronger alliances within the worker’s rights and women’s rights communities.  

The meeting identified a range of challenges to more effectively bridging the long-standing gap between tax justice and human rights advocacy – from conceptual to methodological to legal to political.  Yet, in the face of these obstacles, a spirit of promise at the profound potential of more proactive collaboration infused the strategy meeting.

“One of the greatest obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights…is the global fiscal system,” Magdalena Sepulveda of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation shared. “We must create pressure to open a public and inclusive dialogue in which we can collectively seek the necessary reforms. I’m convinced that meetings like this one contribute in great measure to this end.”



Presentations, background notes and other outputs related to the meeting and its follow up can be found on the International Strategy Meeting webpage.

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