Inequality: can human rights make a difference?

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CESR guest-edits new openGlobalRights debate on economic inequality

The world has seen a dramatic rise in inequalities of income and wealth over the last three decades, making extreme economic inequality one of the defining issues of our time. The 80 richest people on the planet now own as much as the bottom half of the world’s population, while 7 out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago. In the US, the richest 10% accounted for over half of total national income in 2012, the biggest share since 1917.

In recent years, austerity policies imposed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis have made the concentration of income and wealth more acute. In many emerging economies and countries transitioning from undemocratic rule, the rise or persistence of stark economic inequality has dashed expectations of a more egalitarian society. Inequality in South Africa, for example, is greater today than at the end of apartheid, while regressive austerity measures have deepened disparities in Egypt’s troubled transition.

Outrage at the injustice of extreme inequality—and of the inequitable policy choices that fuel it—has spurred an unprecedented groundswell of popular mobilization across the globe. Inequality has surged to the forefront of political debate in many countries. It has become central to the international development agenda, and the subject of global development campaigns and best-selling academic tomes. Even the bastions of economic orthodoxy such as the International Monetary Fund have identified income inequality as a central challenge of the 21st century.

These debates, however, have rarely made reference to human rights. In turn, the human rights community has paid very little attention to economic inequality. While inequality on grounds such as gender, race and disability have long been core human rights concerns, gross inequalities in economic status remain largely unchallenged by human rights law and advocacy.

Yet extreme inequality has profound human rights implications. It results in stark disparities in access to health, education, housing and other services essential to the enjoyment of economic and social rights. It also hampers people’s equal access to justice and to political participation. As Oxfam highlights, it perpetuates poverty and social exclusion, which in turn are key drivers of conflict and insecurity. Extreme inequality is a consequence as well as a cause of human rights deprivations. Many of the key determinants of inequality—from the erosion of labour rights and the weakening of public services, to systemic discrimination and the capture of democratic decision-making by self-serving elites—can be framed as manifest denials of internationally guaranteed human rights.

What then explains the comparative silence of the human rights community on a trend posing such critical challenges to the full range of human rights? What blind spots do human rights practitioners need to confront—normative and conceptual, as well as strategic and methodological—if they are to effectively confront these? Where and how have human rights instruments been invoked to hold governments accountable for growing economic polarisation and the human rights deprivations it entails? And how can human rights help to advance the key policy interventions needed to tackle inequality, from progressive fiscal reforms to wage protections and social protection floors?

This openGlobalRights debate features contributions from prominent human rights and development figures who have begun to address the issue of economic inequality from a human rights perspective. The debate kicks off with two contrasting pieces from leading human rights academics, Philip Alston and Samuel Moyn. Describing extreme inequality as the antithesis of human rights, Alston argues that the human rights community needs to address the incompatibility between the two more directly, and can no longer ignore questions of resource redistribution. Moyn, on the other hand, argues that the movement should accept its limits, as the human rights framework is inherently ill-equipped to deal with matters of distributive equality or to offer an alternative to market fundamentalism.    

Their exchange will be followed on Thursday by a contribution from economists Radhika Balakrishnan and James Heintz, who outline the many ways in which economic inequality threatens all human rights and explore what human rights standards have to say regarding the just distribution of income and wealth.  

Additional articles in the coming weeks will include reflections on the experience of inequality reduction in Latin America, and on the need to hold the business sector accountable for its role in generating as well as mitigating inequality. We ourselves, will also tease out and respond to some emerging threads of the debate,  to prompt further reactions and contributions. Overall, this debate is intended to help the human rights community mount a more robust response to the scourge of widening inequality, as the defining feature of our current economic order.

For more on CESR's work related to economic inequality, see: