Tax is intensely political and conflicted. Tax collection involves unequal struggles played out in every country, every day. Tax is the central economic nexus between governments and their citizens: it can build accountability – but tax abuses and bad tax systems can foster widespread human rights abuses.
Dictators and their cronies loot their countries, stash their wealth in offshore tax havens, and use armed force against their citizens when they complain. Offshore secrecy creates impunity for the most wealthy and powerful sections of society. Massive economic inequalities fostered by skewed tax systems and by secrecy jurisdictions create towering inequalities in wealth, and consequently in the distribution of political power. Large-scale tax evasion by the wealthiest members of society in countries, rich and poor, is tantamount to grand theft of public assets, depriving populations of the public services they need.
Listen to our Taxcast outlining the links between tax justice and human rights. (Starts at 9:15)
“We violate the human rights of billions of poor people by collaborating in the imposition of a supranational institutional scheme that foreseeably produces massive and reasonably avoidable human rights deficits.”
Prof. Thomas Pogge, Yale University, 2011
“Tax abuses deprive governments of the resources required to provide the programmes that give effect to economic, social and cultural rights, and to create and strengthen the institutions that uphold civil and political rights. Actions of states that encourage or facilitate tax abuses, or that deliberately frustrate the efforts of other states to counter tax abuses, could constitute a violation of their international human rights obligations, particularly with respect to economic, social and cultural rights.”
International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, Oct 2013
Both the campaign for more tax justice at local level and efforts to combat international tax evasion and avoidance practices can be regarded as the struggle for the realisation of human rights.
Lawyers for Better Business, Feb 2013.
Watch the presentations at the McGill symposium, on tax and human rights, June 2014
Fortunately, tax justice is now fast emerging as a core concern of the human rights community.
For example, in a report in October 2013 the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) noted that abusive tax systems are heavily implicated in poverty, which is implicated in all the key human rights principles. Tax abuses violate principles that governments should maximise resources to deliver on their human rights commitments, such as providing adequate food and shelter and the right to clean water. Tax systems riddled with special perks for the well-connected undermine human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination. And so on.
Tax haven governments purposefully, knowingly and deliberately create laws, regulations and secrecy measures that deprive the people and governments of other countries of the revenues they need to deliver on their human rights commitments. States or corporations that encourage or facilitate tax abuses, or frustrate efforts of other states to counter tax abuses, are violating established international human rights obligations.
Citizens of Britain, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the United States – and many others: take note – and please urgently call your governments to account. Corporations are in the frame here too, of course, and are a legitimate target for human rights campaigns too. We would single out not just corporate tax dodgers, but the private enabling infrastructure of offshore, which deserves particular attention.
The international dimensions of the problem open up a world of new campaigning possibilities for the human rights and tax justice communities. Frequently, rights campaigners clash with governments in poor, badly governed countries – which typically respond angrily to what they describe as meddling from people in rich foreign countries. But in this campaign, the abusers are substantially those rich foreign countries and the transnational corporations that they host. This opens possibilities for more collegiate, collaborative campaigns with citizens and even governments of poorer countries, and the creation of new shared agendas joining the interests of ordinary citizens in both rich and poor countries. And by focusing on tax abuses one can skip over tricky distinctions made between tax avoidance and tax evasion, and focus on economic and human rights costs.
There is another crucial angle to consider here, often overlooked. We have found, time and again, that tax havens and other countries dominated by international financial services industries are usually heavily ‘captured’ by the financial sector – often with surprisingly harsh human rights implications in those tax havens. The British tax haven of Jersey, for instance, feels to a visitor like Britain. But for those who live there, it can be astonishingly repressive: particularly for those who wish to confront the power of the offshore financial services industry. Read more about this political ‘capture’ here.
Sept 2014 – on the human rights of bad guys
2014 – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a report on the human rights impact of fiscal and tax policy.
Nov 2013 – Tax Justice: a human rights issue? Lawyers for Better Business.
Nov 2013 – Tax abuse and human rights. David Quentin’s tax & law blog, 2013.
Oct 2013 – Tax Abuses, Poverty and Human Rights – International Bar Association Human Rights Institute. A seminal report on tax justice and human rights.
May 2013 – The Finance Curse: how oversized financial centres attack democracy and corrupt economies. Nicholas Shaxson, John Christensen
March 2013 – Tax and the post-2015 agenda. Christian Aid. Explaining how tax has an important role to play in financing for development, strengthening governance and accountability, and tackling inequality.
Tax Avoidance and Human Rights – Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
Feb 2013 – Policy Brief: Tax Justice and Human Rights, TJN Germany.
2011 – Treasure Islands. The chapter “The Life Offshore” describes the degree of political ‘capture’ and repression evidence in tax havens. 2011
2011 – Are we violating the human rights of the world’s poor? Prof. Thomas Pogge, Yale Human Rights and Development, providing essential background to the issues.
2008 – The non-perils of information exchange. Looking at tax havens’ arguments that if they give up information to countries with poor governance, all sorts of disasters will ensue – such as the violations of bad guys’ human rights.