By Jacob Mchangama & Aaron Rhodes
Targeting the G-8, United Nations human-rights officials (“independent experts”) have issued a call for a global financial-transaction tax “to offset the costs of the enduring economic, financial, fuel, climate and food crises, and to protect basic human rights.”
The May 14, 2012, statement is among the most blatant examples of how far the international human-rights community has strayed from human-rights principles by blundering into complex and highly partisan political debates on economics.
Olivier De Schutter, U.N. special human-rights rapporteur on the right to food, proclaimed: “Where the world financial crisis has brought about the loss of millions of jobs, socialized private debt burdens, and now risks causing significant human rights regressions through wide-ranging austerity packages, a financial transaction tax (FTT) is a pragmatic tool for providing the means for governments to protect and fulfill the human rights of their people”.
Magdalena Sepúlveda, another U.N. special rapporteur (her bailiwick is poverty and human rights), expressed confidence that the presumably massive revenue stream from such a tax “would fill government deficit holes, but should be channelled to fighting poverty, reversing growing inequality and compensating those whose lives have been devastated by the enduring global economic crisis.” Neither expert made any mention of possible social, economic, or political costs.
These statements raise many questions, aside from the obvious issue of the plausibility of the proposal and the rank amateurism of its reasoning. In fact, other human-rights officials and civilian groups have inveighed against austerity measures with the claim that they violate human rights. The Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe warned Portugal that “employment, housing, education, and social and medical assistance are vital social rights that may not be ignored even in times of economic crisis.”
Any number of respected economists would remind these officials and activists that it is precisely unsustainable overspending on generous state benefits that has led citizens in many welfare states to the point where they now face painful reductions and unmet expectations. Others would argue for more taxes on businesses and rich people, and for printing money in order to “stimulate growth.”
But should international human-rights officials, who are supposedly independent and nonpartisan, promote particular policy approaches to problems such as reducing sovereign debt? What vision of human rights animates the view that the economic hardship citizens are now facing around the world constitutes a human-rights violation that can be addressed by redistribution of wealth through taxation mandated by human-rights law? Answer: It is a politicized vision of human rights propounded by leftist organizations and politicians who have long been poaching on the transcendent concept of human rights and freedoms. As Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati noted in 2003, human rights “is the in term, much as ‘socialism’ was three decades ago, and its moral resonance immediately gets you onto higher ground and gives you a free pass with the media and the public.”