As the world commemorates ‘International Human Rights Day’ on December 10, hypocrisy and cynicism remain the order of the day, particularly on the part of rich countries, which pay lip service to the issue while at the same time contributing to the denial of basic human rights to the majority of the world population.
Covid-19 is the best example of this. Despite their promises, most Northern states have monopolised and hoarded vaccines. These days, they are turning a deaf ear while a hundred or so emerging countries, led by South Africa and India, are demanding the lifting of patents on vaccines and treatments against the virus. While intellectual property rights are not the only reason why barely 7 per cent of Africans are fully vaccinated, they certainly are a major obstacle. This selfishness regarding access to vaccines is not only morally outrageous, but also already coming back like a boomerang to hit rich countries as new variants emerge.
The other lamentable image of this end of 2021 is the increasing number of migrant tragedies at the gates of Poland, in the Mediterranean, in the English Channel, or at the border between Mexico and the US. Here again, the leaders of the rich countries pretend to forget that, while economic recovery is evident in their own countries, it is still to come in the developing world, which has suffered an explosion of poverty since the start of the pandemic, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into exile.
Far from the headlines, a recent news item highlights the double talk of the major powers: the reform of the taxation of multinationals. After two years of negotiations, an agreement was adopted at the beginning of October, with the introduction of a global tax on corporate profits as its key measure. The aim? To put an end to the devastating competition between states in terms of corporate taxation, which is causing a haemorrhage of resources at the expense of funding for rights such as access to water, health, education, or vaccines. At least $483 billion in tax revenue is lost each year to tax abuse by multinationals and wealthy individuals. This would be enough to cover more than three times the cost of a full Covid-19 vaccine regimen for the entire world population.
The world will continue to be deprived of these funds. Negotiations led by the OECD, without really listening to developing countries, have only resulted in the introduction of a 15 per cent tax on multinationals. This will only generate $150 billion in additional tax revenue, which will, moreover, go primarily to rich countries. An additional $250 billion could have been raised with a 21 per cent rate, for example, or even $500 billion with a 25 per cent rate, as advocated by ICRICT ( Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation).
Here again, the leaders of rich countries are concerned about the extent of tax evasion but remain convinced that the best way to serve their national interest is to submit to the injunctions of multinationals and the demands of tax havens. Most of these tax havens are not small islands lined with coconut palms: OECD countries are responsible for 78 per cent of the annual tax losses worldwide to multinationals and the richest. The most hypocritical country is the UK, which, with its network of overseas territories and ‘Crown Dependencies’, is responsible for 39 per cent of global losses.
Additional resources deprived
Continuing to tolerate tax avoidance and tax evasion by most multinationals and the richest, and consequently depriving states of additional resources, is a direct attack on human rights. Without these funds, it is impossible to restore the health systems that have fought heroically against the virus — thousands of doctors and nurses have lost their lives — despite their meagre resources, which are constantly under attack by austerity programmes. It is also impossible to give a future to all the children out of school during and due to the pandemic — 99 per cent of children in Latin America, for example, were out of school for a whole year, and an estimated 3.1 million of them are out of school forever.
Without additional funds, it is also impossible to finance infrastructure, provide access to water or sanitation, or to daycares and nursing homes, all of which continues to increase the workload of women, who are the first victims of the pandemic. Finally, it is impossible to deal with the climate emergency, as the increase in natural disasters is depriving entire populations of shelter and food.
It is painful that the rulers of the rich countries have once again failed to address the magnitude of the crises we are going through. But a better world is possible, thanks to a growing movement of people around the world who are challenging governments to make multinationals and the super-rich pay their fair share. Each country can, if it wishes, unilaterally adopt a much more ambitious tax rate for multinationals, starting with the Europeans. The ripple effect on the others will be inescapable. Tax justice is not a technical battle, it is a tool for advancing human rights.
The writer is a member of the Independent Commission on International Corporate Tax Reform. She was the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights
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