Economic Inequality and Human Rights: An Emerging Global Debate

Socio-economic inequality has become a threat to all categories of human rights. Photo from Occupy Wall Street protest by Dean Chamim

(Original article: Center for Economic and Social Rights)

Rising economic inequality has emerged as one of the defining social ills of our time, and a growing threat to all human rights. 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. Yet the human rights movement as a whole has so far been slow to address the implications of this alarming trend.

In the face of this pressing concern, CESR is coordinating a new debate on Economic Inequality and Human Rights on Open Democracy’s OpenGlobalRights page, bringing together leading experts to explore the problem of economic inequality and to assess what role the human rights community should play in confronting it.

Initial contributions from Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, and Harvard University Professor of Law Samuel Moyn, offer contrasting views on the fundamental question of whether the human rights sector should try to address socio-economic inequality. Radhika Balakrishnan, Faculty Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, and James Heintz, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, meanwhile argue that extreme inequality represents a threat to all human rights and offer an economist’s perspective on how human rights standards can be invoked in response. An article by Juan Pablo Jiménez from the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean takes stock of the lessons learned from efforts in the region to tackle inequality, and the critical role of progressive taxation and social protection policies.

As the debate continues in the weeks ahead, further analyses from other contributors will explore how the human rights framework can more effectively tackle extreme economic inequality as a cause, consequence and manifestation of human rights violations, and what potential blindspots the movement must be mindful to address. CESR and oGR welcome contributions from all those interested to engage in the debate.

The issue of inequality, and its implications for the human rights movement, is also addressed in the new CESR report Twenty Years of Economic and Social Rights Activism, which looks back at the two decades since CESR´s founding and draws out both lessons learned and key trends in the field that must now be confronted. Chapter 2 focuses specifically on inequality and includes think pieces from leading human rights experts in the areas of women’s rights, indigenous peoples’ rights and racial justice.

The injustice of rising economic inequality and wealth concentration must be tackled head on by the human rights community. It is CESR’s hope that the oGR debate and our anniversary publication will prove a useful resource in the work of human rights defenders and others intent on harnessing the transformative power of human rights to tackle socio-economic injustice.

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