Liz Nelson ■ Tax justice cuts through every struggle for justice: conference recap


It’s been two weeks since our Annual Conference but the buzz and energy is still running through our heads and hearts. This year’s Annual Conference, the theme of which was Tax Justice and Human rights, was particularly special to many of us, not just because it marked a return after last year’s conference was cancelled due to the pandemic, but because it also exemplified the way in which tax justice over the past years has been widely adopted into so many spheres for social justice.

The conference launched a foundational report explaining the linkages between tax justice and human rights. In her Foreword, Irene Ovonji-Odida, Ugandan lawyer and women’s rights activist and also a member of both the High Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda (FACTI Panel) and the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT), explained how the report:

navigates through some of the most salient issues and helps to map the alarming contours of the human rights impacts, [and]…at the centre of these abuses are high-income countries and their dependent territories, and the wide circles of tax and other professionals

Supported and co-hosted by the Association of Accounting and Business Affairs (AABA); City University, London; and the Tax and Gender Working Group of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice (GATJ), this year’s conference fuelled an energy and a host of conversations which reflect the growth of influence of the global tax justice movement, and the credibility and relevance of tax justice positions for those advocating for human rights and ending inequalities.

The conference opened with Prof Prem Sikka from AABA, founding partner of the conference, Member of the UK House of Lords and Senior Adviser to the Tax Justice Network, presenting a shameful picture of the scale of wealth and income inequality in the UK. While a tiny minority of citizens in the UK are enabled to compound their wealth to obscene levels many, many more live in poverty. Prof Sikka was quick to point out this pattern of wealth and income inequality is one repeated in every country across the globe.

Prof. Sikka took the opportunity, as is tradition at our annual conference, to recognise and honour individuals who have worked to support and promote the work of tax justice. This year, awards were given to Cathy Cross a longstanding Board member of the Tax Justice Network and to James Henry, a Senior Adviser to the Tax Justice Network.

Prof Anastasia Nesvetailova of the Political Economy Research Centre at City University of London (CITYPERC) opened her remarks by noting that the Biden tax plan, whatever its faults and there is indeed much that has been critiqued, is a compliment to the work of the Tax Justice Network and a recognition of the importance of the tax justice movement’s campaigning and analysis. Jeannie Manipon, from Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD) and representing the Tax and Gender Working Group, concluded the welcome address by drawing attention to the opportunities and imperatives for a transformative agenda which places people and the planet at the centre of the movement’s thinking and action. Jeannie echoed a key message from the report launched as the centrepiece of the conference: “Tax justice is, very simply, a feminist agenda.”

Philip Alston, Professor of Law at NYU Law and Chair of Center for Human Rights & Global Justice, and until recently the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, encouraged everyone to read the report, and called on civil society to grasp the interconnectedness of tax justice and human rights. The reality, Prof Alston warned, is that any progress civil society organisations make on their issues can and will be “undermined or overturned by changes in the tax system”.

Attiya Waris, Deputy Principal at CHSS, Director Research and Enterprise and Associate Professor of Fiscal Law and Policy at University of Nairobi, and the newly appointed UN Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights; and Steven Dean, Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, talked with Alex Cobham, chief executive at the Tax Justice Network, about subtexts and racial bias in tax systems; this theme eloquently and spectacularly built upon by Professor Dorothy A Brown, author of The Whiteness of Wealth, and our first keynote speaker at the conference. Later, the conference was honoured by a second keynote by Andres Arauz, Ecuadorian presidential candidate and tax and social justice campaigner, who framed his comments about efforts to bring back a ‘caring economy’ in Ecuador within the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Andres underlined how human rights depends on tax justice and debt justice to bring about the advancement of rights and curtailment of discriminatory policies.

Each year’s conference is marked by the Annual Lecture. This year we invited “a man known for standing with and for those who are perceived as weaker.” Dr Dereje Alemayehu, Executive Coordinator of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice, had a message that was clear and potent. Tensions between tax expertise and tax justice activism is a dynamic that “will always be there”. This is not a point of “discouragement” for activists. The focus of our activism is to mitigate the influence of past colonial powers and to address the “broken and outdated” global tax system they created. Politicking and power relations in the international arena determine our un-wellbeing and failure of rights. Dr Alemayehu warned that tax justice can’t be limited to technical solutions nor the notion that generating more revenue for countries represents justice – the 4 R’s of tax justice1The four “Rs” of tax refer to the key benefits that flow from taxation: Revenue, to fund public services, infrastructure and administration.
Redistribution, to curb inequalities between individuals and between groups. Repricing, to limit public “bads” such as tobacco consumption and carbon emissions. Representation, to build healthier democratic processes, recognising that higher reliance of government spending on tax revenues is strongly linked to higher quality of governance and political representation.
demand transparency, universality and equality. Delivered with characteristic compassion, Dr Alemayehu is clear that advancing human rights requires the creation of an organic link and alignment with the human rights movement in the struggle for justice.

On the final day there was a focus on the normative. Kate Donald moderated a session called ‘Going beyond the surface: translating human rights norms into concrete fiscal policy reforms’ and described the conference as a “milestone in bringing these issues [tax justice and human rights] together”. Kate shared encouraging examples of growing recognition of the fact that tax justice was crucial to the progress of rights, equality and sustainable development. Many more sessions also delved into normative approaches including a session on personal and political reflections on new constitutional developments to mitigate inequalities and strengthen rights in Chile.

It is fitting that this year’s spirited conference had a particularly animated conclusion. Pulling together a panel of legal, revenue, development and economic experts rooted in the global south, Irene Ovonji-Odida, lawyer, women’s rights activist, and UN High-Level Panelist, along with Logan Wort, Executive Secretary at the African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF), and Manuel F. Montes, Senior Advisor at the Society for International Development, considered what is next for the global taxing rights process, discussed how critical recommendations can be implemented to ensure tax justice and human rights are at the forefront of global policy making, and, crucially, reflected on the power imbalances and pressures that are imposed by the richest on the poorest.

Few can leave this conference without a sobering understanding of the powerful interests which tax justice and human rights campaigners, researchers and journalists are tackling head on. Their efforts to change structures and systems which fail the economic, social and cultural rights of peoples all over the world is exemplified in their courage, innovation, tenacity and hard graft. The realisation of rights is a collective struggle, as Jeannie Manipon said at the opening of the conference, to re-centre people and planet.

At this year’s conference we honoured the bravery and tenacity of one woman and her family. The Family of Daphne Caruana Galizia were awarded the Anderson-Lucas-Norman Award for Tax Justice Heroism. The award is named after Jean Anderson, Pat Lucas and Frank Norman, three Jersey islanders who were among the first to challenge the financial sector’s state capture of Jersey, sparking the global tax justice movement.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a fearless investigative journalist. A native of Malta. She, like John Christensen, co-founder of the Tax Justice Network and native of the UK dependency Jersey, was driven by a sense of abhorrence towards the injustice that resulted from the self-interest, secrecy and illicit financial activity operating around her. Knowing that the patterns and scale of activity undermined democracy and the gulf between rich and poor, Caruana Galizia disrupted and frustrated the financially corrupt. She paid with her life. Her family honour her memory by continuing her investigative work and by bringing those responsible for her death to account. Their efforts are both a tribute to their mother, wife and sister, and to all investigative journalists who put themselves at risk.

You can watch Paul Caruana Galizia’s award acceptance speech on behalf of the family. All sessions from the conference are available to watch here.

Our report Tax Justice and Human Rights: the 4 Rs and the realisation of rights can be found here.

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