Inequality, Human Rights, and Social Rights: Tensions and Complementarities

Abstract: Economic inequality is increasingly recognized as one of the main problems of our time. But what human rights have to say about it? Are human rights effective tools for tackling inequality, as human rights practitioners have argued, or are they powerless and inadequate tools to challenge inequality in the age of neoliberalism, as stated recently by Yale’s professor Samuel Moyn? This article examines the complex relations between economic inequality and human rights, especially economic and social rights (ESR), by exploring the arguments behind these two opposite views. We propose an intermediate position: while human rights and discussions about inequality predominantly take place in autonomous fields, it is not only possible but crucial to overcome some of the pitfalls of human rights law in relation to inequality in order to use it as an equalizing instrument. Extreme inequality poses not only strong empirical obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights but also undermines core tenets of human rights law, such as the principle of equality of opportunity.These links allow us to bridge the gap between the two fields and to speak of inequality as a human rights issue. We explore five paths to reinforce the equalizing potential of human rights law: 1) moving towards ‘empirical based normative standards,’ 2) advancing interpretations of human rights law more sensitive to economic inequality, 3) enhancing the equalizing potential of human rights accountability mechanisms; 4) incorporating human rights concerns across different regimes of internationaleconomic law, and 5) providing strategies and arguments for supporting redistributive policies between and within countries.

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About Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes

Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes is a Colombian Lawyer with a Ph. D. in Political Economy. Currently, he is senior researcher of the Center of Studies on Law, Justice and Development "Dejusticia'' and professor at the Department of Law at the Universidad Nacional, in Bogotá. He is also member of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations and of the International Commission of Jurists. He was deputy justice of Colombian Constitutional Court. He is author of numerous books and articles on human rights, constitutional law, judicial system and transitional justice.

About Sergio Chaparro Hernandez

Sergio Chaparro Hernandez works as Program Officer on Human Rights in Economic Policy at the Center for Economic and Social Rights. He is an economist, a philosopher and holds a Master in Law from the National University of Colombia. He is co-author of Irrational Punishments: Drug Laws and Incarceration in Latin America (CEDD, 2017) and Assessing Austerity: Monitoring the Human Rights Impacts of Fiscal Consolidation (CESR, 2018).