Inequality is an Affront to Human Rights

Mark Zuckerberg seems a nice enough guy. There is nothing particularly wrong with how he spends his money. The fact that he is part of a group of eight individuals who own as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the entire world’s population, however, undermines the idea that the global community genuinely cares about human rights. And it exposes the growing problem that led to Brexit, and the rise of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, as well as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

When we hear of ‘human rights’, we usually think of civil and political rights, the right to life, freedom of expression, etc. These are the rights championed by Western governments and NGOs. These are the rights used to justify military interventions that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. But there is another set of rights fought for by poorer countries which receive less attention: economic rights, as stipulated under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These include, amongst others, the right to work, the right to health, and the right to receive an adequate standard of living like sufficient food, clothing and housing. Breaches of these rights lead to the deaths of millions through preventable diseases and malnutrition, far more than any of the real or alleged human rights abuses by dictators that spurred some of the recent wars and interventions costing blood and treasure.

The fact these rights are not being met for billions around the world is often seen as an unfortunate but unresolvable problem. “It isn’t anyone’s fault”. Leeway is afforded because of ‘limited available resources’.[1] Economic rights are seen as more ‘aspirations’ than real rights. They require positive action and are therefore unenforceable. This means achieving these rights (unlike civil and political rights) requires states to do something good, rather than refrain from doing something bad. It is easier to stop a government from murdering dissidents than ensure they give people an adequate standard of living.

Deeper inspection reveals, however, that this is a false distinction, at least conceptually. Where resources are sufficient but people are denied economic rights due to extreme concentrations of wealth, economic rights can also be considered ‘negative’ obligations, just like civil and political rights. States actively use force to enforce laws preserving the system of private wealth in a way that would not occur in a ‘state of nature’ where there is no overarching authority. While the property of those who have worked hard for it should be protected, it is clear that protecting it is an intervention by the state. Furthermore, some civil and political rights require positive action themselves. For instance, the right to vote cannot occur without (expensive) action to run elections.

Many poor countries may of course genuinely lack the ability to fulfill these rights. We live in a global economy, however, and worldwide, there are enough resources available. They are just concentrated. The world’s richest 1% has more wealth than the rest of the globe combined. The bottom 73% own around 2%, and the bottom 50% own less than 1%.

Some argue that economic rights are unenforceable as they are a matter of subjective degree rather than black and white. How do we define an ‘adequate’ level of standard of living? One definition is if an individual is above a state’s poverty line, but this ignores the global nature of the economy. The ICESCR General Comment 12 states that ‘adequate’ “is to a large extent determined by prevailing social, economic, cultural, climatic, ecological and other conditions”. Prevailing conditions today are that global wealth is growing, and so is inequality with the rich becoming richer faster than the rest. This suggests that the means to address abuse of economic rights is increasing, creating more responsibility to act. And despite how difficult it might be to determine precisely what is ‘adequate’, it is clear that masses of people suffer inadequate living standards relative to global wealth, i.e. a violation of economic rights.

Further evidence that it isn’t the nature of economic rights that prevents their achievement, but rather, the lack of political will, can be seen in how ‘work’ has evolved over time. Economists and sociologists in the early and mid-20th century forecasted that increases in wealth and productivity (due to tech advancements) would mean that during the current century most people’s time would be devoted to leisure. They felt ‘the End of Work’ was near. Keynes believed that it was a matter of time before the “economic problem” was solved. Now it’s 2017 and people continue to work long hours. This is due to the concentration of wealth and power, and the diversion of resources towards pointless ends.

To fully realise economic rights, we must rethink how we value work. The ICESCR stipulates equal remuneration for work of equal value. While this has been used to prevent discrimination, particularly against women, it has broader underlying principles. Zuckerberg is rich because he created Facebook, a website which provided a service that already existed on sites like MySpace, HighFive and others. He merely made the user interface neater. The billions he earned because people preferred this product (and because he had some business acumen) does not seem to equate to the ‘value’ of the work he contributed (though it’s more than those who inherited their wealth). Many people in the lowest paid jobs, cleaners for instance, create more real value for society. In his recent book, Bregman describes many of those earning the most in today’s society as merely shifting wealth around, while those like sanitation workers actually create value.

Some argue enforcing economic rights would interfere with sovereignty and democracy. This is what Global South states already complain about civil and political rights, yet these are nevertheless considered legitimate rights by the West. Economic rights also strengthen democracy and related civil/political rights.[1] The right to vote, central to democracy, has less meaning if the absence of education prevents basic understanding of what one is voting for and leaves people vulnerable to false narratives (something abundantly clear over the last year).

When civil and political rights were adopted globally, they challenged certain cultural norms and threatened authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, they were considered universal and enforceable. If economic rights are valued equally, states must be open to questioning the structures of global and domestic economic systems, and the dogmas increasingly proffered to justify inequality. In rich countries, policy changes can include progressive taxation, a maximum wage/wealth ceiling, greater public ownership, welfare, a universal living wage, foreign aid and regulation of investment to create real value. The international community should establish clearer measurements of an ‘adequate standard of living’ determined by both biological needs and global economic conditions.

The ‘Responsibility to Protect’, unanimously adopted by all UN member states, stipulates that countries have responsibilities to prevent mass violations of basic civil and political rights outside their borders. States have arguably more power, and therefore responsibility, to prevent mass violations of economic rights in a global economy.

While reform will by slow, complex and multidimensional, a first step could be to re-conceptualise rights. If diplomatic stage-time continues to be spent on endless discussion of civil and political rights while ignoring the global-scale neglect of economic rights, then the human rights system is morally inconsistent and has little meaning to much of the world. There is no moral justification for millions starving while a few have more money than they would need in a thousand lifetimes, even if they use it to run for President.

[1] Langford, M., 2009, ‘Closing the Gap? An Introduction to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’, 1, Nordic Journal of Human Rights, pp13-14.

[2] Van Boven, T., 2014, ‘Categories of Rights’, in Moeckli, D., Shah, S., and Sivakumaran, S. (eds.), International Human Rights Law (2nd ed.), Oxford University Publishing, p44.

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