Ministers and heads of state from every region of the world speaking at the UN General Assembly yesterday gave their continued backing for the UN process to address international cooperation on tax.1 The moderator closed the debate by identifying a “consensus” that had emerged on the central option of three set out in the UN Secretary General’s report, which proposes a UN tax convention. Countries are expected to vote on a specific resolution to begin negotiations over a UN tax convention in late November, bringing the global tax system one step closer to its biggest shake-up in history.
The adoption of a UN tax convention has been heralded as countries’ best chance to avert losing nearly $5 trillion to tax havens over the next decade.2 The Secretary General’s proposals, brought forward on the basis of a unanimous resolution passed at last year’s General Assembly, would have global tax rules be decided at the UN – instead of at the OECD, a small club of rich countries which has overseen global tax rules for the past 60 years and which received unusually blunt and comprehensive criticism from the Secretary General for its failure to get a grip on the global tax abuse crisis or to meaningfully include non-OECD members in its decision making.3
Speaking at the General Assembly session, Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea John Rosso said:
“We recognise the importance of fostering effective tax cooperation and for an international framework forward. This will not only assist institutional and human capacity building of national tax and other relevant authorities to perform effectively their duties but also to combat tax avoidance, tax evasion and illicit financial flows by multinational corporations and others, which are destructive to the development of developing countries.”
Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico Alicia Bárcena said:
“We support the call of the African Group to design a possible inclusive taxation framework in order to have a convention including the payment of taxation by companies and areas generating profits.”
Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs of Jamaica Kamina Johnson Smith said:
“A reformed international tax system is key to achieving a more just and sustainable world.”
Senior Minister of the Royal Government of Cambodia said:
“We must work together to create a fair and equitable international tax system in an increasingly interconnected world – one that ensures that all countries regardless of size or wealth receive the fair share of tax revenue, one that helps developing countries mobilise the resources they need to invest in their people and achieve the SDGs. … Tax avoidance and evasion has the greatest impact on the poorest most vulnerable people and on econ growth and especially in developing countries. Therefore, we must strive for an inclusive tax system that promotes tax transparency.”
Chenai Mukumba, Executive Director of Tax Justice Network Africa, who was speaking at the UN General Assembly session on behalf of the Civil Society Group on Financing for Development, said:
“In order to address the issue of inclusivity we need an intergovernmental forum where all member states are able to participate on equal footing at on a level playing field. The importance of reform of the global tax system is that while countries have a sovereign right to collect taxes, illicit financial flows through tax evasion and avoidance prevent the effective exercise of this right. Therefore, an ineffective international tax system limits the sovereign rights of our states.”
In opening keynote remarks, H.E. Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa and chair of the African Union/ECA High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows out of Africa, said:
“It is important that the community of nations act on this matter without delay. The only body to process this matter with inclusivity is the United Nations, and we strongly recommend the UN Secretary-General’s proposed Option 2 [a UN framework convention on tax].”
The moderator, Ms. Iyabo Masha – the Director of the Intergovernmental Group of Twenty-Four on International Monetary Affairs – opened the session by noting: “We at the G-24 are delighted that the UN has decided to get involved in setting global tax rules.” Ms Masha concluded the session by highlighting that “consensus is forming around Option 2”.
Notably silent on the matter were the United States, the European Union and its major members, and the UK. Together, the countries are responsible for enabling much of the tax losses suffered by other countries, but also suffer themselves the largest losses in absolute terms. Their silence leaves the door open for a globally inclusive and fully effective alternative to the OECD.
Inputs from each of these major countries to the Secretary-General’s report earlier this year, however, emphasised concerns about not “duplicating” the OECD tax reform process – despite the growing clarity that the OECD process will deliver much less than originally promised, leaving most cross-border tax abuse yet to be tackled. It remains to be seen whether the US, EU and UK will remain part of the consensus when the resolution to begin formal negotiations is tabled.
Alex Cobham, chief executive at the Tax Justice Network, said:
“We are now in the run-up to what could be the single most impactful vote on tax of our lifetimes. Deciding global tax rules at the UN can finally free us from the increasingly suffocating grip that corporate giants and tax havens have exerted for decades over tax: the lifeblood of economies, public services and livelihoods around the world.
“We commend the many countries backing the process, from the unanimous consensus for last year’s Africa Group resolution to the explicit support for Mr Guterres’s proposal for a framework convention on tax to bring global tax rules into the daylight of democracy at the UN, where all countries will finally get a real say, and where governments will finally have to answer to each other, and to their own people, on tax policy.
“For sixty years, global tax rules have been decided behind closed doors at the OECD where a handful of countries and lobbyists treated tax policy as something to cater to the interests of the wealthiest corporations and billionaires. The result is a global tax system that loses nearly half a trillion dollars every year to tax havens and tax abusers, and a decision-making process that has proven incapable of fixing the problem. People in the US, EU and UK above all should be asking their governments how they will vote when the resolution comes to the General Assembly – and demanding that they join the negotiations to fix our broken global tax system.”
Countries unanimously agreed at the UN last year to open the door to negotiations on a UN tax convention.4 The historic resolution was adopted despite unprecedentedly aggressive attempts by the OECD to prevent the resolution from coming before the UN General Assembly.5 The UN Secretary General was asked to prepare a report on possible options for a UN tax convention for the UN General Assembly to consider.
The report was published ahead of schedule this August in an advanced, unedited version – an uncommon move that is thought likely to be intended to reduce the scope for lobbying to weaken the report by those OECD member countries that oppose its findings – and received over 80 submissions from stakeholders. The UN Secretary-General delivered a string of stinging criticism of the OECD in his report and concluded that only UN leadership on tax can effectively bring an end to global tax abuse – something the OECD has failed to deliver after 10 years of effort.
Countries are now expected to vote on a UN General Assembly resolution this November on whether to formally begin negotiations on a UN tax convention.
Supporters of the UN tax convention have pointed to the OECD’s failure to deliver tangible progress on rampant global tax abuse as well as to the OECD’s failure to meaningfully include most countries in its rulemaking process6 – a criticism the UN Secretary General and the European Parliament7 have upheld in their backing of a UN tax convention.
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Notes to editor
- The statements are available on the UN website here.
- Our State of Tax Justice 2023 estimates that countries around the world will lose nearly US$5 trillion to tax havens over the next 10 years. Read more here.
- More information on the UN Secretary General’s proposals is available here.
- The UN has a rich history of establishing and overseeing some of the most impactful specialist agencies, trade agreements and conventions that deal with highly complex, technical issues. Examples include: he UN’s DESA secretariat for sustainable development goals; United Nations Conference on Trade and Development; The International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organisation and UNCTAD; the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation; the Trade Facilitation Agreement; the Uruguay Round (1986-1994) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which led to the creation of the World Trade Organisation.
- The OECD was reported to have used unprecedented language in letters to ambassadors to question the UN’s fitness to oversee international tax discussions. Sources told the Tax Justice Network that the move has backfired in some quarters as it was seen as “undiplomatic” and “highly unusual” to attack another international institution in this way, and may actually have bolstered support for the UN resolution. The letters the OECD sent to ambassadors have been discussed with the Tax Justice Network by multiple people who have seen them. The OECD did not respond to media requests at the time to make the letters public.
- Studies by several bodies, including the IMF and the BEPS Monitoring Group, conclude that the current draft proposals the OECD has prepared under BEPS 2.0 will make little to no impact on the scale of tax losses. IMF research on the revenue returns to the OECD proposals can be found here(see Figure 1 and Figure 5 on Pillar 1 and broader revenue impact), and here (a comparison of Pillar 1 with digital sales taxes for Asian countries). Research by the BEPS Monitoring Group, published earlier this month, found the OECD’s proposals to be “fundamentally flawed”. A study by the South Centre and the Coalition for Dialogue with similar conclusions can be found here. A EU Tax Observatory report, which finds lower income countries would lose tax revenue under OECD proposals, can be found here.