Linking inequality to social unrest: Can UN turn the tables? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 01, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:59 PM, April 01, 2019

Linking inequality to social unrest: Can UN turn the tables?

In a speech at the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on March 6, 2019 in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet spoke forcefully for combating inequalities in income and wealth. Inequalities in their various forms, she said, are responsible for the rise in social unrest in many countries. While presenting her annual report to the HRC, Bachelet spoke eloquently about the threats posed by global inequality.

As a matter of fact, she went even further and spelled out the linkages between human rights and inequality and urged world leaders to work in reducing inequality with utmost urgency. The annual report on human rights circulated by Bachelet's office, OHCHR, is replete with instances where human rights are under attack. In addition, the report came up with a strong hypothesis: “Inequality drives human rights violations everywhere.” She drew a direct connection between the political unrest in France, Sudan, and Haiti and the surging inequality in these countries, and urged for immediate action to redress various forms of inequities. “To achieve the 2030 Agenda, the world's States needed to advance on tackling inequalities—inequalities of resources, income, power, access to justice, and with respect to the basic conditions for human dignity,” she said.

For readers who might not be familiar with the international hotspots singled out by the OHCHR chief, here is some brief background information. In France, the public demonstrations in Paris and other regions which began on November 17 last year were triggered by President Macron's proposal to raise fuel tax, and have now morphed into a nationwide agitation against his government. The Yellow Vest movement, now into its fourth month, is a reflection of the opposition to Macron's policies for tax cuts for the rich, reducing support for social programmes, and privatisation.

In Sudan, the autocratic rule of President Bashir, who has been at the helm for more than 20 years, is facing street demonstrations and protests organised by a group of professional unions including doctors, lawyers, teachers and students, and supported by two of the largest opposition parties. Bashir responded by declaring a year-long state of emergency. In Haiti, the trouble for the government began last year with anti-corruption protests over USD 4 billion of funds earmarked for social development which went missing. The latest round of demonstrations, which led to several deaths, is the culmination of years of simmering discontent that has plagued Haiti since the January 2010 earthquake, which killed 100,000 people. 

The message contained in the report and speech is powerful in view of the fact that it originates from a non-partisan watchdog. OHCHR is entrusted with highlighting human rights violations and keeping a vigil on how the powerful around the globe are trampling on human rights by denying a segment, or even a majority, of the population of a country access to basic human needs. Advocates for equality can now count on an important ally in the fight to achieve greater equality. Equality is not purely an economic or a political agenda, it is a human right. Inequalities affect all. Even in prosperous countries, people feel excluded from the benefits of development and deprived of economic and social rights, leading to alienation, unrest and sometimes violence. In addition, the OHCHR's report endorses the position that reducing the various forms of inequalities is a precondition for the achievement of the SDG Agenda. 

It may also be mentioned that there is increasing awareness that inequalities are the drivers behind several of the global trends that are of great concern to HRC and other inter-governmental bodies. Involuntary and precarious migration is a case in point. The recent surge in migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to the United States is a consequence of the failure to ensure that development reaches everyone, according to the OHCHR annual report.

Bachelet underlined that inequalities and the failure to give equal weight and respect to all human rights had the power to erode all three pillars of the United Nations: peace and security, development, and human rights. During her tenure as President of Chile (from 2006 to 2010, and 2014 to 2018), reducing inequality had been at the heart of Bachelet's ambitious reform platform. One key component was a push for education reform that raised education spending by 2 percent of Chile's GDP. Roughly half of this money went toward improving the quality of subsidised schools that serve more than nine out of 10 Chilean children. Prior to the reform, subsidised private-voucher schools were allowed to charge add-on fees and select students, leading to one of the worst socio-economically stratified schooling systems in the world.

Earlier this year, in a special meeting of HRC in Geneva to review progress on achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda, Bachelet sounded the alarm. She indicated that “overall, we are not on track” to meet its ambitious aims. “The 2030 Agenda is a commitment to achieve greater international cooperation for a more equitable international order,” she said. “But above all, it is a promise extended to people previously locked out of development: the marginalised, disempowered and excluded communities; the millions of women, racial, religious and caste minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, persons with disabilities, Roma and the poor.”

The threat to SDG posed by rising inequality has been flagged by UNDP too. According to its own calculation, achieving SDG 10 “Reducing Inequalities” is proving to be a formidable challenge. “It is well-documented that income inequality is on the rise, with the richest 10 percent earning up to 40 percent of total global income. The poorest 10 percent earn only between 2 percent and 7 percent of total global income. In developing countries, inequality has increased by 11 percent if we take into account the growth of population,” according to a UNDP study.

As for Bangladesh, the trend is very similar to the rest of the world. A columnist of this newspaper wrote that “stark income, consumption and wealth inequalities remain a scar on the economy.” (March 12, 2019) Official statistics show that in 2016, the top 5 percent of households possessed 28.9 percent of the national income while the bottom 5 percent possessed only 0.2 percent.


Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is Senior Research Fellow at the International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.


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