UN poverty expert: inequality must become a political issue

Poverty is largely ignored as a human rights violation, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston.

A picture of Philip Alston, wearing a black suit, standing at lectern next to a Melbourne Law School banner

Speaking at a public lecture at Melbourne Law School last week, Professor Alston argued that extreme poverty amounts to a violation of human rights. But the relationship between human rights and poverty is rarely connected, not only by governments and key international actors but also by the world’s major human rights groups. Professor Alston said many human rights groups insist that poverty is irrelevant to their work.

While Alston praised international development organisation Oxfam for its work on inequality, he criticised international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for “never embrac[ing] properly the notion of economic, social and cultural rights as human rights”.

He said the UN’s human rights body has also failed to take action on poverty and inequality. “The UN Human Rights Council speaks rhetorically and endlessly about the importance of economic and social rights but if you examine the record closely, very little is done in that area.”

Professor Alston said the right to life should be interpreted to encompass not just civil and political rights, but also economic and social rights. Examples of these rights at a basic level include the right to food, water, housing sanitation and education.

“By not addressing economic and social rights, by not addressing questions of redistribution, by not portraying poverty as a violation of rights, I think the human rights movement risks quite seriously being part of the support of the status quo.”

The UN poverty expert said the redistribution of taxation has played a key role in creating huge inequalities across the world. The decisions of governments to give huge tax benefits to particular groups of people whose profits are repatriated out of the country has led to shocking statistics in income inequality. Referring to Guatemala as an example, Professor Alston explained how the elites that have dominated the congress have set the taxation levels at a record low and so taxation as a percentage of GDP is at 11%. Although there is great wealth, there are huge inequalities because low taxation is imposed, leaving no money for basic social services.

According to Oxfam's report An Economy for the 1%, in 2015 just 62 individuals had the same wealth as 50% of the world’s population.

Professor Alston said the OECD has failed to bring about the transparency needed to get a sense of the vast illicit financial flows and where the benefits of corruption are funnelled.

“The resulting concentration of wealth in the world is an affirmative decision made by global elites and supported by our governments,” he said.

Going forward, Alston said that inequality and poverty must become political issues. Economic and social rights should be taken seriously and violations of these rights should be addressed with the same instinctive outrage that we would civil and political rights.

Click here to listen to a recording of this lecture.

By Mairead Murray