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Fighting inequality: The untapped potential of human rights

Guest content
21 December 2023

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 75, we must delve deeper into the many powerful ways in which human rights can end poverty discrimination and address economic inequality, writes Olivier De Schutter for The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

The “age of human rights”, says legal historian Samuel Moyn, has been “kindest to the rich”. It is hard to argue otherwise, with a staggering rise in economic inequality between the haves and have-nots coinciding with the expansion of human rights discourse over the past 50 years. This trend shows no sign of abating. Since 2020, the richest 1% have pocketed nearly twice as much wealth as the rest of the world put together.

Moyn goes on to declare that human rights are simply “not enough” to confront these shocking levels of inequality.

Sure, he argues, human rights provide for the basics in life – food, water, sanitation, housing, healthcare – but beyond that they have very little to say about, and are in fact ill-equipped to address, the explosion of global wealth and income inequality. Kári Hólmar Ragnarsson, an assistant professor of law at the University of Iceland, summarises this neatly: human rights have established “a ‘floor’ of decent living while remaining unconcerned with the ‘ceiling’ of economic inequality”.   

Ragnarsson credits the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) with at least raising concerns about economic inequality, but even then not until 2016. And he laments that the Committee simply calls for progressive taxation to finance social spending, as opposed to the total transformation of the free market economy that got us into this mess in the first place.

Banning discrimination on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 75, the human rights movement must confront Moyn’s argument head on, and delve deeper into the many powerful ways in which human rights can, in fact, address economic inequality.

One promising avenue, as explored in my latest report to the UN General Assembly, is to draw on human rights instruments to end the abhorrent discrimination people in poverty face on a daily basis.  

Povertyism – negative attitudes and behaviours towards people in poverty – is endemic in today’s world. It is entrenched in public and private institutions and severely restricts people’s access to the services and systems that have been proven to significantly reduce inequality: education, housing, employment, social benefits.

My report details cases where children from low-income families were denied access to certain schools; landlords refused to rent apartments to tenants receiving social security benefits; and employers judged CVs more harshly when the address suggested the person lived in a deprived neighbourhood. Povertyism also discourages people who experience poverty from claiming certain social security benefits for fear or being shamed or maltreated, making it a major driver of the non-take-up of rights.  

While human rights have traditionally been lauded for protecting those whose gender, race or disability make them vulnerable to discrimination (horizontal inequality), addressing gross inequalities in economic status (vertical inequality) is relatively unchartered territory. Fortunately, international human rights instruments do – despite what Moyn claims – have plenty to say on the issue.

Article 2(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights mentions “social origin” and “property” among the prohibited grounds of discrimination, alongside, inter alia, race, colour, sex, language or religion. These two grounds also appear in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which prohibits discrimination in the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms of the Charter, inter alia, on grounds of “social origin” and “fortune”. Article 1.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights provides for the right to equality and nondiscrimination on the basis inter alia of “social origin”, “economic status”, and “any other social condition”. In Europe, both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights refer to “property” as well as “social origin” in their respective anti-discrimination provisions. The Arab Charter on Human Rights refers to “social origin” and “wealth”.

In its General Comment No. 20, on non-discrimination, the CESCR states:

“Individuals and groups of individuals must not be arbitrarily treated on account of belonging to a certain economic or social group or strata within society. A person’s social and economic situation when living in poverty or being homeless may result in pervasive discrimination, stigmatization and negative stereotyping which can lead to the refusal of, or unequal access to, the same quality of education and health care as others, as well as the denial of or unequal access to public places”.

These texts are explicit: socio-economic disadvantage is grounds for discrimination – in the same way as race, sex and other sources of discrimination. And the CESCR has taken the next logical step, by insisting that such grounds should be included in the anti-discrimination laws adopted by the States parties to the Covenant.

There are already laudable examples of where governments have banned discrimination on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage. In Canada, the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms of Quebec includes “social condition” as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. In France, discrimination on grounds of poverty is defined as a criminal offence and prohibited in the Labour Code. However, these examples – and a few others – are exceptions to the rule, and discrimination against people living in poverty remains as overlooked as it is widespread.

Economic inequality will never be eradicated while discrimination restricts people’s access to the very services and benefits intended to level the playing field. Activists working to combat inequality should not forget that States have a legal obligation under international human rights law to prohibit this discrimination.

A new approach: the next 75 years

The “age of human rights” is a cause for celebration and can be credited with huge gains in all areas of our lives. Yet the potential of human rights to challenge the devastating rise of economic inequality has not been fully realized – yet.

If human rights are to remain relevant for a further 75 years, activists should make it a priority to better understand and untap this potential.

At the same time, I would urge the international human rights community to consider a wider question: if economic growth has caused such high levels of inequality, is it not time we questioned the value of that growth in the first place? Our obsession with economic growth as the answer to eradicating poverty feels counterintuitive when that growth causes such misery to so many.   

It is a big question, but one I will devote an increasing amount of my time to as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. As we celebrate the UDHR at 75, perhaps now really is the time, as Ragnarsson puts it, for the human rights world to fundamentally challenge “neoliberalism’s continuing spiral of economic inequality”.

Olivier De Schutter is the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Original source: The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung