How Human Rights Law Is Evolving to Address Inequality

On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Chanu Peiris examines how its principles apply to one of today’s burning political issues.

Expert comment Published 10 December 2018 Updated 14 October 2020 2 minute READ

Chanu Peiris

Assistant Director, International Law Programme

Copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a variety of languages. Photo: Getty Images.

Copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a variety of languages. Photo: Getty Images.

There is growing attention to human rights in debates on economic inequality. In the UK, concerns about the disproportionate impact of economic policy on vulnerable groups have been raised recently by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – who issued a statement criticizing the Conservative government’s austerity policies – as well as in a report from the UK government’s independent Equality and Human Rights Commission. These reports echo global concerns about fiscal policies, poverty and extreme economic inequality.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which celebrates its 70th anniversary today – and the human rights treaties it inspired do not expressly address income and wealth gaps. But international human rights law is playing an increasing role in addressing economic polarization. Those concerned about inequality should consider how, especially over the past 25 years, the principles of socioeconomic rights have been clarified by courts and other human rights mechanisms.

While the focus in the Global North has historically been on civil and political rights, such as the prohibition on torture or the right to fair trial, international human rights law does set out economic and social rights. For example, Article 23(4) of the Declaration – which is replicated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other treaties – calls for the right to collective bargaining in employment. Weakening protection in this area has been raised as a partial cause of the current escalation in income inequality.

Human rights law also guarantees rights, including to education, healthcare and social security, that have redistributive potential and so have the potential to mitigate inequality.

Human rights law recognizes that fulfilment of economic and social rights, unlike civil and political rights, can be limited by the resources available to different states, and this conditionality – along with a lack of guidelines to assist with implementation and monitoring – has historically shielded fiscal policies from human rights scrutiny. However, attitudes have shifted.

For example, international human rights law has come to embody a commitment to tackling substantive inequalities which impair human dignity. This requires the state regulate markets, and redistribute resources, in order to prevent discrimination against disadvantaged groups such as the poor.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other human rights bodies assert that states have an immediate obligation, even during times of resource constraint, to ensure the fulfilment, without discrimination, of the minimum essential levels of socioeconomic rights, for example essential subsistence and basic shelter. Thus, austerity measures that scale back the enjoyment of rights may breach human rights standards. In order to justify such measures, governments need to first demonstrate they have considered ‘less restrictive’ avenues, including taxation options.

Although the application of human rights standards to economic policy is an emerging area, human rights campaigners have been successfully leveraging these protections to address the causes and consequences of the inequality crisis.

For example, in case No. 66/2011 the European Committee of Social Rights overturned austerity measures that would have brought wages under the poverty level, citing breaches of labour rights and protections against discrimination. In Brazil, a coalition of civil society actors successfully used human rights standards to legitimize their critiques of a 2008 tax reform bill that would have given additional tax breaks to the wealthy while withdrawing resources for social services.

Beyond legal enforcement, framing concerns within the architecture of human rights can shift power to rights-bearers and move debates on tackling extreme inequality from the policy sphere into one where the state has a duty for which it is accountable. While the state bears primary responsibility for realizing human rights, non-state actors such as businesses have responsibilities to respect human rights. Thus, human rights can also help communities to recast the scope of the crisis to one of shared responsibility.

While human rights have seen many normative developments and advocacy successes since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the last 70 years also offer several lessons and strategies to adopt going forward.

As highlighted at a recent Chatham House event, the continued emphasis on civil and political rights in the discussion about human rights is at odds with the lived experience of individuals and communities worldwide, who may not feel their economic and material concerns are reflected in campaigns for human rights.

There will need to be a greater emphasis on adapting messaging to be more inclusive and to build alliances between disparate groups. Human rights analysis will also need to move beyond documenting the impact of systemic issues towards tackling root causes and creating a positive vision for economic inclusion and governance.