South Africa

MAVERICK CITIZEN: International Human Rights Day

UN recommends action against inequality, but will states listen?

UN recommends action against inequality, but will states listen?
UN Members' flags - the UN Headquarters, New York (Photo: Wikimedia)

Today is the 71st anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the years that have passed since then, one of the most pressing issues facing the world is the explosion of inequality, not only between countries but within countries. Increasingly, United Nations human rights bodies are highlighting inequality when making recommendations to states – showing that this issue should be seen and acted on as a central human rights concern.

In South Africa, as a prime example, we often hear how the countries’ wealth is controlled by a tiny percentage of the population. So, do human rights have anything to say about material inequality? The question is worth asking, especially in light of recent critiques. In his 2018 book, Not Enough – Human Rights in an Unequal World, historian and Yale University law professor, Samuel Moyn argued that “… the critical reason that human rights have been a powerless companion of market fundamentalism is that they have simply nothing to say about material inequality.”

One of the ways to explore this critique further is by looking at what the United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms have to say about inequality. Is inequality an issue of concern to those UN bodies mandated to monitor compliance with states’ human rights obligations? If so, it would be harder to sustain Moyn’s argument.

A search in the SDG-Human Rights Data Explorer, a database developed by The Danish Institute for Human Rights, shows that the term inequality is explicitly used in more than 800 recommendations and concluding observations issued by these bodies from 2007-2018. Further, a very large number of recommendations are drafted around two overarching areas of concern, namely (i) inequality and poverty; and (ii) inequality and discrimination. Questions of material inequality are clearly addressed.

The distribution of the recommendations across the various mechanisms is also noteworthy. The UN treaty bodies made 394 of the recommendations, the UN Special Procedures 129 of them, and a further 282 recommendations were made in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

The UPR recommendations are often worded in rather generic terms (e.g. “Continue efforts to eradicate poverty and ensure the reduction of inequalities in the distribution of wealth and access to economic and social well-being by all people.”), and this generality allows states to avoid taking concrete action. However, the lack of specific guidance should not overshadow one significant finding: The UN member states have been extensively using the UPR to emphasize that domestic inequalities are a human rights problem, and in doing so legitimize the claim that human rights monitoring should address social and economic inequality.

South Africa has been a recipient of a number of these recommendations that specifically mention inequality. These recommendations – mainly put forward by fellow African countries – focus on the need for South Africa to combat corruption, eliminate poverty and fight both social and economic inequalities. These are highly pertinent recommendations. Furthermore, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – a prominent so-called UN Treaty Body – has eloquently and in greater detail emphasized the same issues in its Concluding Observations to South Africa from November 2018.

It deserves mention that the South African government itself actually endorses the important linkages between human rights and inequality, and its relevance as a focus for international human rights monitoring by making similar recommendations to other UN member states. South Africa has, for example, made the following recommendation to Japan: “Consider adopting the National action plan for children to address inequalities in living standards and disparities by gender, ethnic origin and disabilities.”

A qualitative review of the more than 800 recommendations shows that they are spread over four main categories. There is a sectoral focus where educational, health and employment inequalities receive particular attention. This sectoral emphasis regularly extends to highlighting obligations vis-á-vis a broader range of social and economic rights. There is a clear link between these human rights and various forms of inequality.

The second category focuses on specific groups, covering gender, racial and ethnic groups, children and vulnerable, and marginalised groups. Of these, gender inequality is the form of inequality that has by far received the most attention by the UN human rights mechanisms.

The third category focuses on income, wealth and wage inequality (with the latter solely focused on its gender dimension). Most highlighted in these recommendations are the human rights challenges brought by vast income inequalities.

The fourth category is geographic. The UN human rights mechanisms are particularly concerned with rural-urban divides in human rights fulfilment (e.g. provision of and access to services).

In addition to these categories, there are a number of more specific topics that are worth highlighting. In recent years, the UN treaty bodies have become more vocal in demanding states provide better-disaggregated data to assess inequality. This includes a recommendation to a UN member state to “undertake a study to identify the root causes of inequality”.

It is very likely that South Africa could face a similar recommendation in the near future. However, here, South Africa can now reasonably inform the international community that some action has been taken. The recent report Inequality Trends in South Africa: A Multidimensional Diagnostic of Inequality produced by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) and the South African Labour and Development Research Unit (Saldru) at the University of Cape Town – the first of hopefully more to come – was launched on 14 November 2019.

The report convincingly lays out the scale of the inequality problem in South Africa. Interestingly, it shows how meeting the country’s human rights obligations is necessary for addressing the dire situation. The report states that reducing inequalities, “will require changes to the structure of the economy and the improvement in the quality of services government provides to ensure equal access, and importantly, equal positive outcomes in terms of health and education across the population”. Health and education are key human rights obligations (both in international and constitutional terms), and illustrates why human rights and economic policy must dare to become allies.

This type of linking is increasingly visible in UN human rights monitoring. The UN human rights mechanisms are showing a growing concern regarding taxation, emphasising the need for states to introduce progressive taxation (over regressive models), and to secure redistribution through taxation to finance fulfilment of human rights obligations. This is noteworthy and deserves highlighting. For example, in 2016, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that Namibia “… implement a more redistributive fiscal policy and regularly assess its impact on combating inequalities”.

The UN Special Procedures are also focusing on taxation, for example recommending that states, “Take effective measures to ensure progressive tax policies and to rationalise the budget, both in terms of revenues, and of outputs and investments, with the aim of reducing socioeconomic inequalities and poverty, and to ensure redistribution of the benefits of economic growth and the full realisation of human rights”.

The costs of inequality may also have another disturbing consequence. In a concluding observation made by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to the Central African Republic in 2014, there is an interesting example of a UN treaty body identifying “social and economic inequalities”, as a causal factor for “quasi-collapse of the state”. The link drawn is between inequality and its negative impact on security and stability of a state. This may well be an early example of an emphasis that the UN mechanisms will have to expand considerably in coming years if more effective steps are not taken around the world to fight inequalities. The current unrest in many parts of the world may be a case in point.

There is clearly real potential for the UN mechanisms to play a role in addressing inequality, but there is room for improving how they do so. A number of critical issues are still on the margins of their interpretative practices. One such issue is austerity. Recommendations that link austerity policies to inequality focus on countries like Ireland, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Greece, where the issue is already the subject of domestic debates. The UN mechanisms seem to opt for a middle-of-the-road approach, with their tendency to mirror these debates in giving recommendations when they should actually treat austerity politics as a much wider human rights problem of global significance. It is not merely a post-2008 financial crisis problem.

The UN human rights mechanisms should also revisit how they draft recommendations, because very often, inequality is featured as part of a descriptive diagnosis in the framing of a recommendation. It should instead feature more prominently in the actionable part of the recommendation given to states.

There is also a need to communicate the recommendations much more effectively to civil society and to media in the countries concerned – otherwise they carry little weight in debates at the national level. The SDG-Human Rights Data Explorer provides an accessible resource for all actors to mitigate this critical human rights gap between obligations at the international level and the realities at the country level. This is important because, as the evidence here shows, the international human rights treaties do take into account inequality. That is the clear view of the international monitoring mechanisms. Greater awareness and attention to this would both improve the quality of the recommendations made and their local impact. This would be to the great benefit of people and societies all over the world, including in South Africa. MC

An earlier version of this article was first published in Open Global Rights. Steven LB Jensen is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. He is co-editor of the recently published book, Histories of Global Inequality: New Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).


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