Outcomes from the Workshop on Vertical Inequality and Human Rights

by | Jun 14, 2019

On 17th May 2019, the Sciences Po Law Clinic and the Global Initiative for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR) brought together leading human rights actors to discuss the Clinic’s research exploring how and when UN Treaty Bodies have addressed economic inequality. Participants included academics, human rights advocates and representatives of UN agencies.

The research surveyed over 10,000 concluding observations made to States by the UN human rights treaty bodies to identify how frequently they addressed economic inequality, for which countries and in what context. The research found that only 201 Concluding Observations referenced economic inequality and, of these, only 114 were direct references. It also identified several trends, including:

  • The right to an adequate standard of living and the right to education were the rights most frequently associated with economic inequality;
  • The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was the treaty body which most frequently referred to economic inequality, followed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women;
  • The UK, Canada and Portugal received the most recommendations regarding economic inequality. The number of recommendations given to a country about economic inequality does not correlate with their gini coefficients;
  • The social group most frequently addressed was ‘low-income’/ ‘economically disadvantaged’/ ‘poor’/ ‘underprivileged’, which together made up 86 out of the 201 concluding observations that referred to economic inequality.

The workshop used this research as a starting point to discuss the capacity of the human rights framework and movement to address the injustice of economic inequality. The workshop first examined whether human rights actors are currently tackling economic inequality and whether they could or should address it.

Overall, it was agreed that it was important to move beyond Samuel Moyn’s assessment that human rights are ill-equipped to tackle economic inequality, and rather use this as an opportunity to highlight the work that is being done and to advance it. The dichotomy between horizontal and vertical inequalities was highlighted as failing to recognise the intrinsic link between the two. Many participants noted that those working on inequality have always dealt with distributive inequality (vertical) and status-based inequality (horizontal) together. It was suggested that a structural change is needed to end the trap of poverty and the stigma it carries within society. Professor Sandy Fredman advocated a multi-dimensional understanding of inequality, which tackles stigma and stereotypes, in order to address power imbalances. It was also agreed that the human rights framework should emphasise redistribution, not only poverty alleviation.

It was suggested that more could be done to extend existing rights and put proactive duties on states. It was argued that the human rights field has the necessary instruments to tackle economic inequality, but that it needs to place direct responsibility on states and ensure compliance. In particular, the ICESCR concept of ‘maximum available resources’ has much potential for tackling vertical inequality, since it requires States to look at resource mobilisation, allocation and redistribution.

The transnational dimension of economic inequality was also emphasised, particularly the need to reinforce States’ extraterritorial human rights obligations. Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which specifically refers to inequality between countries, is one avenue for exploring further this dimension.

The discussion moved onto how human rights could address economic inequality more effectively by bridging the gap between disciplines. It was suggested that the human rights community should be policy specific and prescriptive and should form alliances with other actors, such as environmentalists, economists and feminists, as well as civil society and social movements in the Global South. Language choice was emphasised as crucial for fostering this collaboration. However, it was suggested that human rights language should remain distinct whilst being approachable for use by economists and others.

The Sciences Po Law Clinic gathered recommendations from the workshop which will be used to advance their research. They will continue to work with the GI-ESCR to extend the research to new areas, such as the work of Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review. The project will continue its collaborative approach and seek to work with actors from other disciplines working on economic inequality.

The workshop revealed that whilst there has been much human rights work undertaken on economic inequality, there remains ample opportunity in the field to address these issues.

The final research report is due to be published in the coming months. This report will also be included as a chapter in the forthcoming volume, “Human Rights and Economic Inequalities”, edited by Gillian MacNaughton, Diane F. Frey, and Catherine Porter, to be published in 2020.

For more information on the Sciences Po Law Clinic Project and to be notified when the final report is published please contact:  

Sciences Po Law Clinic:

Katherine James, Sciences Po Student: katherine.james@sciencespo.fr
Beth Munro, Sciences Po Student: beth.munro@sciencespo.fr
Caroline Noyrez, Sciences Po Student: caroline.noyrez@sciencespo.fr
Jeremy Perelman, Director of Clinic, Co-Tutor: jeremy.perelman@sciencespo.fr
Bruno Rodrigues, Tutor, PhD student: bruno.sousarodrigues@sciencespo.fr

Global Initiative for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR):

Lucy McKernan, Geneva Representative: lucy@gi-escr.org
Sylvain Aubry, Legal and Research Advisor: sylvain@gi-escr.org

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