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Economic inequality and financial crises undermine human rights, UN expert says in new report

GENEVA (15 March 2016) – Economic inequality contributes to financial crises and can undermine human rights, said the United Nations Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, presenting his latest report* to the UN Human Rights Council.

“Inequality can erode the State’s tax base and increase private debt which affects sovereign debt and can undermine stability and lead to financial crises. Conversely the social effect of financial crises can be catastrophic for the poor,” the human rights expert said. 

There has been an unprecedented accumulation of wealth in recent years by a small but powerful elite: the 80 richest individuals are estimated to own as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the entire world’s population. Global inequality is extremely high and still rising.

“Austerity measures adopted in response to financial crises have pushed many individuals below minimum income levels,” Mr. Bohoslavsky said, “and international human rights law has something to say about economic inequality”. His report is clear that States have the obligation to prevent inequality undermining the enjoyment of human rights.

“While human rights law does not necessarily imply a perfectly equal distribution of income and wealth, it does require conditions in which rights can be fully exercised. As a consequence, a certain level of redistribution is expected in order to guarantee individuals an equal enjoyment of the realization of their basic rights,” the expert noted.

In his report, Mr. Bohoslavsky offered a range of recommendations to tackle inequalities in the prevention of financial crises and in response to them. These include: financial market regulation, minimum wages, progressive taxation and social protection floors.

“Structural adjustment programmes should be subjected to robust human rights impact assessments and not only orientated at short term fiscal targets to regain debt sustainability,” he concluded.

Next to his report on inequality, the Independent Expert presented his final study on illicit financial flows, in which he focuses on the tax-related flows: tax evasion by high net-worth individuals, commercial tax evasion through trade misinvoicing and tax avoidance by transnational corporations.

In the study, Mr. Bohoslavsky argues that curbing illicit financial flows and tax abuse is essential not only for realizing human rights, but also for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Independent Expert also presented two country visit reports. His mission to China reviewed how far human rights have been incorporated into the international lending and outbound investment of the country.

His report on Greece called for debt relief to boost the real economy and social inclusive growth. The human rights expert expressed concern that the harsh austerity measures implemented in Greece had contributed to a widespread denial of economic and social rights in the country.

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s reports:
- Economic inequality, financial crises and human rights: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/31/60
- Illicit financial flows and human rights: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/31/61
- Reports on China (A/HRC/31/60/Add.1) and on Greece (A/HRC/31/60/Add.2): http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session31/Pages/ListReports.aspx  

Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky (Argentina) was appointed as Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and human rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council on 8 May 2014.  Before, he worked as a Sovereign Debt Expert for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) where he coordinated an Expert Group on Responsible Sovereign Lending and Borrowing. His mandate covers all countries and has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 25/16. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Development/IEDebt/Pages/IEDebtIndex.aspx 

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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