Martha F. Davis: The Threat of Inequality:  COVID-19, Human Rights, and the Pandora Papers

Martha-F-DavisWelcome to our blog, the Human Righter. We shed light on contemporary human rights issues and comment on human rights developments. We dig deep into our focus areas within human rights, discuss SDGs and human rights. You will also find book reviews and analyses of new laws.

By Martha  F.Davis 
University Distinguished Professor, Northeastern Law School; faculty affiliate, Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

“Covid-19 has shown us the true extent of global inequality,” wrote Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director Oxfam International, in January 2021.  Unfortunately, ten months on in the course of the pandemic, it turns out that there was more to show.

The “Pandora Papers” released by news organizations recently, underscore the obscenity of inequality so great that it is difficult to imagine, as well as the real social and economic damage that flows from it.  The Pandora Papers consist of 11.9 million paper and electronic records and images leaked from financial services firms. Journalists scrutinizing the papers have identified hundreds of wealthy individuals and firms who parked their assets in so-called off-shore tax havens (some of which were in land-locked South Dakota, U.S.A.) in order to avoid paying taxes.

It remains to be seen whether any of these transactions are illegal, but the human rights issues are clear.  Up to $32 trillion is secured in hidden investments worldwide, according an analysis by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The International Monetary Fund estimates that these tax havens cost governments as much as $600 billion in lost corporate taxes and $200 billion in unrealized individual taxes each year.

What could the world do with that missing $800 billion a year?  As it turns out, women lost an estimated $800 billion in 2020 as the result of Covid-19.  These missing taxes could make the women of the world whole, with all of the attendant benefits to society that flow from women’s increased economic stability and well-being.

Vaccinating the whole world against Covid-19 would take only an estimated $70 billion, leaving hundreds of billions to help expand internet access worldwide – one of the key inequalities exposed by Covid-19. Imagine the difference that worldwide access to the vaccine would make in terms of economic recovery, and the educational and financial gains possible everywhere with expanded broadband access.

The $800 billion could be invested in providing remedies or reparations for Black and Brown people whose vulnerability to Covid is exacerbated by the impacts of racial discrimination. It would be a fitting use of funds that wealthy investors chose to keep for themselves to further increase their exorbitant wealth rather than invest in the common good.

Throughout Covid lockdowns and restrictions, low income people experienced the hardship of homelessness, doubled-up housing and lack of healthy, restorative and accessible outdoor spaces. Eight hundred billion dollars a year would provide a big boost to providing affordable housing and re-designed urban spaces.

Instead, these funds have been put to use helping wealthy individuals avoid paying taxes to support their communities.  As Susana Ruiz of Oxfam said in a statement reacting to the release of the Pandora Papers, “[t]his is where our missing hospitals are.  This is where the pay-packets sit of all the extra teachers and firefighters and public servants we need.”

In human rights circles, there has sometimes been debate about whether inequality should be viewed with the same heightened concern as extreme poverty.  Certainly, extreme poverty and deprivation undermine fundamental human rights.

But the Pandora Papers, juxtaposed with the plight of individuals and communities around the world battling a pandemic with inadequate resources, amply demonstrate the corrosive nature of extreme inequality. Human rights norms recognize our mutual responsibility for honoring our common humanity and dignity.  As the filthy rich search for ways to avoid paying taxes, both they and the tax havens that support them slink away from their responsibility to protect human rights.

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