Why Tax Dodging is a Human Rights Issue
20th November 2017

I wrote a blog post for Oxfam’s Views and Voices blog about the Human Rights aspects of Tax Dodging. This is both about the connection between them, and also what international human rights law says about it.

It may be sort-of obvious that dodging tax is really harmful for people. In ‘developed’ countries we have had austerity politics of cutting public services, which causes deaths and drastically reduces quality of life. We still have homeless people, people in poverty who are working full-time jobs, high levels of child poverty, and many other problems. In ‘developing’ countries – which should include the context that many of the ‘developed’ countries stole wealth from them through imperialism – it’s even worse.

Human Rights are an internationally recognised standard which we can use to measure the effects it has on people and the obligations various actors have. States have obligations under international law, and corporations have a recognised responsibility. Perhaps more importantly, the human rights framework allows us to make moral arguments based on these. International law is pretty weak, so really it’s about the political pressure to try and ‘enforce’ this.

Not in this article but as important context, human rights have been divided into two sets. One is Civil and Political Rights, the other is Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. This division happened after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out all of the rights which individuals have, as work was being done to make treaties for states to have obligations with regards to this. ‘Western’ liberal democracies favoured civil and political rights: fair trial, right to vote, free expression, privacy, that sort of thing. Communist and socialist countries favoured Social and Economic rights: access to healthcare, housing, education, food, etc.

Each bloc of countries did not favour the others. In the UK and the USA, ensuring that people are housed and fed is much less of a priority than in ‘eastern’ countries. On the other side, the eastern bloc did not have free expression or votes. The European Convention of Human Rights, despite the UDHR’s attempt that all human rights are indivisible, only contains civil and political rights. So in the UK, though we do have a welfare state (though it is being pulled apart, cut down and reformed to destroy it), this is not seen as human rights and we do not have constitutional rights to it. Homeless people just have to wait out a council list to see if they will ever get housing – and the lack of funding and provision means this takes way too long and many are abandoned on the street.

In 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights gave its concluding observations on the UK’s periodic report. Under the Convention on ESCR, each state has to report periodically on what they are doing to realise the rights, and the Committee then comments on it. This is all the enforcement there is: no courts or other political organs. The State is then meant to disseminate this review in its country, as part of giving it political meaning, but they do not, and our media does not really cover it either. Some of the comments in the review are pretty damning:

  • Austerity: the Committee was ‘seriously concerned about the disproportionate, adverse impact that austerity measures introduced in 2010 are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups.’ It reminded the UK that the obligation is to progressively realise economic, social and cultural rights by maximum available resources.
  • Tax policies were also criticised, such as increased VAT and reduced corporate tax and ‘¬†financial secrecy legislation and permissive rules on corporate tax’.¬† These mean that there is less money for public services and maximum available resources are not being used. The Conservative politicians have been effectively lying to the public for years, claiming that the problem is ‘overspending’ and that their aim is to ‘cut the deficit’, though as they cut spending they also cut taxes.
  • Women: the gender pay gap and the lack of representation of women in senior decision-making positions was criticised.
  • Mental Health: the Committee recognised that there was a new legal duty for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health, yet noted that there were far from enough resources to actually fund mental health.
  • There were also comments on homelessness, discrimination against people with disabilities, education, social care, and many other things.

Human rights is not a magic solution, and as a framework has many problems. However, in the current political climate, they are a useful tool. Instead of worshipping ‘wealth creating’ corporations and idolising ‘entrepreneurs’, we can focus on whether the government and economy are improving things for everyone by using human rights standards. Tax is not just about ‘economics’, in the usual veneer which talks about GDP and inflation, but is about what we use resources for and how much those with money help improve things for those who do not.

Any comments or questions let me know, and here’s another link to the Oxfam blog piece:

Why tax dodging is a human rights issue