Countries are expected to approve by majority vote tomorrow a UN resolution mandating the UN to take on a global tax leadership role. The vote by the UN General Assembly will mark the end of the OECD’s sixty-year reign as the world’s leading rule maker on global tax, and trigger a power struggle between the two institutions with implications for global and local economies, businesses and people everywhere for decades to come.
The UN General Assembly is set to take the momentous decision tomorrow, in a session that will be streamed live.1 But the OECD has pushed back hard. It remains to be seen whether the organisation’s campaign of meetings with delegates in New York, and pressure applied to ambassadors in Paris, can derail the UN resolution, which has been brought by the Africa Group following a call by finance ministers at the Economic Commission for Africa in May this year for negotiations to begin on a UN tax convention. The OECD, which is a membership body of the world’s richest countries, is 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.2
If adopted, the resolution will allow countries to begin intergovernmental discussions in New York over possible UN reforms to the global tax system, including the establishment of new UN bodies and mechanisms to monitor, evaluate and decide global tax rules. On the table is the creation of a UN tax convention which would overhaul global tax rules to bring an end to global tax abuse by multinational corporations and the superrich.3 Proposals for a UN tax convention have gained wide support in recent years from governments, leading global institutions, civil society groups and the UN General Secretary himself.4
Countries supporting the UN resolution have pointed to the OECD’s failure to deliver on promises to reform the global tax system and on promises to include non-OECD members – who constitute the majority of the world’s population – in reform processes. The OECD began formal reform processes in 2013 to end global tax abuse by multinational corporations, which was mostly recently estimated in 2021 to cost countries $312 billion in lost corporate tax a year.5
Nearly a decade later, the OECD has still not delivered.6 Several proposals submitted by non-OECD members were rejected in favour of plans forced through by OECD-members US and France in 2020. But it now seems that neither the US nor the European Union – the two biggest powers in the OECD’s membership – will adopt the latest draft of plans, leaving little hope for the OECD’s reform process to move forward.
For the majority of the world, moving rulemaking on global tax to the UN will mean lifting the hold that former colonial powers have continued to exert via the OECD over global tax rules since the dissolution of their empires. Determining global tax rules through inclusive and democratic forums at the UN will give most countries for the first time since their independence sovereignty over their taxing rights.
South Africa’s former President Thabo Mbeki, who chairs the influential High-Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows out of Africa, has emphasised the importance of the UN decision7:
“I was delighted to see the African Ministers’ Declaration calling for negotiations on a UN tax convention, and the pledge of support from the UN Secretary-General. This is the obvious and necessary next step to address the global threat of illicit financial flows, including corporate tax abuse. I fully support the creation of a globally inclusive, intergovernmental process at the UN. I urged all international organisations and Member States to resist attempts to block this important step forward, and thus call into question our global commitment to fighting illicit financial flows and corporate tax abuse in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
President Mbeki also addressed the OECD’s attempts to obstruct progress:
“I understand that the current discussions at the UN General Assembly Second Committee have proceeded well, with only a handful of countries with remaining concerns at the stage prior to adoption. I strongly urge all the friends of Africa to resist any attempts to reverse agreement on this issue.
While the OECD has played an important role in these areas, it is clear after ten years of attempts to reform international tax rules that there is no substitute for the globally inclusive and transparent forum provided by the United Nations. I urge countries to remain committed to the development of a UN tax convention and encourage the OECD to play a supportive role in this regard.”
For OECD member countries, which lose the largest sums of tax to global tax abuse, moving rulemaking on global tax to the UN will provide an opportunity to end the outsized influence corporate lobbyists and tax havens have held over the OECD’s rulemaking processes – which has repeatedly come at a cost to their tax revenues, people and public services. Last week, an open letter8 sent to the G20 revealed that the OECD’s concession to multinational corporations on tax transparency which required OECD members to keep anonymous the identities of multinationals found to be shifting profit into tax havens resulted in governments forgoing $89 billion in corporate tax a year. The OECD concession to multinational corporations stopped governments from preventing 1 of every 4 tax dollars lost to tax havens. The open letter urged G20 countries to withdraw their support from the “transparency-allergic” OECD and back a new UN tax leadership role.
Countries like the US, Ireland and Switzerland that have dominated the top positions on the Corporate Tax Haven Index9, a ranking of countries most complicit in helping multinational corporations underpay tax, and the Financial Secrecy Index10, a ranking of countries most complicit in helping individuals to hide their finances from the rule of law, have exerted oversized influence on global tax rules by throwing their weight around at the OECD. According to a 2021 study11, OECD member countries and their dependencies were responsible for facilitating 78 per cent of the tax losses countries suffer a year to global tax abuse. In other words, OECD members were found to have enabled the handing over of $378 billion a year from public purses around the world to the wealthiest multinational corporations and individuals. But most OECD country citizens also lose out, to this tax abuse – moving to a more transparent and effective UN process could yield benefits for all except the tax abusers and their enablers.
Alex Cobham, chief executive at the Tax Justice Network, said:
“This vote is a crucial turning point in the setting of international tax rules. For the first time, we may see significant numbers of OECD member countries join the G77’s longstanding call for the UN to lead on international tax cooperation and rule-setting. The important leadership of African finance ministers has created this opportunity – and the growing recognition that the OECD has not delivered on its mandate has opened the door for global agreement.
“If the vote is passed at the General Assembly tomorrow, it will open the way for intergovernmental discussions on the negotiation of a UN tax convention and a global tax body. It will also mark the beginning of the end for the OECD. The OECD has fought tooth and nail to block progress here, and in doing so appears to have shown itself more interested in protecting its power than in delivering on the fight against corporate tax abuse. Ultimately, this only confirms the importance of moving tax rule-setting to a globally inclusive and transparent forum at the United Nations.”
Hon. Irene Ovonji-Odida, a panellist of the UN High Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity, a member of the African Union/Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows out of Africa (the ‘Mbeki panel’) and a Tax Justice Network board member, wrote in the State of Tax Justice 2022 report’s foreword (published last week)12:
“Many economically wealthy states that are OECD members are seeking to block the creation of an intergovernmental tax body, and a UN tax convention. Presumably they continue to prefer an ineffective body in which they exercise disproportionate power. But many people in OECD countries, too, face grave pressures of inequality and climate crises. They, too, wish to end the social damage that corporate tax abuse inflicts on us all.
“The OECD is failing everyone, driving inequality between and within countries. With this vote, countries are saying enough is enough. Let this vote be a catalyst for the public around the world and especially within OECD countries to demand that their governments back a truly inclusive, transformative process to bring global tax to the UN.”
Timeline of events leading to UN vote:
- A call to develop a UN Tax Convention was first put forward by the Africa Group at the United Nations in 2019.
- The UN Secretary-General’s initiative in 2020 to explore responses to the Covid-19 pandemic identified a UN tax convention among the options for heads of state.13
- In February 2021, The UN high level panel for Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity (FACTI) including former heads of state called for the establishing of a UN tax convention to implement a package of tax justice policies.14
- The World Economic Forum in June 2021 published a white paper identifying the UN tax convention among key policy pathways for an ambitious economic recovery post-pandemic.15
- Also in 2021, the South Centre – the intergovernmental organisation of lower-income countries – published a briefing detailing a proposal for a framework UN convention on tax.16
- The world’s first draft for a UN tax convention was proposed in March 2022 by civil society experts at Eurodad and the Global Alliance for Tax Justice, drawing battle lines for future negotiations at the UN.17
- Finance ministers of the Economic Commission for Africa , representing around one in six of the world’s population and over a quarter of the membership of the United Nations, called on the UN in May 2022 to start negotiations on a tax convention to address comprehensively the threat of cross-border tax abuse, including by wealthy individuals and multinational companies.18
- The new finance minister of Colombia, itself an OECD member, used the platform of a Tax Justice Network/Global Alliance for Tax Justice event on 6 September to announce the country’s support for a UN tax convention, and their plans to encourage Latin American consensus.19
- The UN Secretary General António Guterres announced in September this year his readiness to support a UN convention on tax that would overhaul century-old global tax rules.20
- A draft resolution was submitted in October this year at the UN General Assembly’s Economic and Financial Committee calling on negotiations to begin at the UN on global tax rules.21 This resolution will be voted on this Wednesday 23 November 2022.
The Tax Justice Network will be running a live blog on the UN vote. Follow the blog for latest developments and reactions.
Watch the UN vote live here, streaming from 10am-1pm EST Wednesday 23 November 2022.
Notes to editor
- The vote on the resolution will be held at the UN General Assembly Second Committee meeting tomorrow, Wednesday 23 November 2023, which will run from 10am-1pm EST. The meeting will be livestreamed here.
- The letters the OECD sent to ambassadors have been discussed with the Tax Justice Network by multiple people who have seen them. As of writing, the OECD has not responded to media requests to make the letters public.
- Read more about proposals for a UN tax convention here.
- For more information, see the “Timeline of events leading to UN vote” section towards the end of the body of the press release.
- Read more about the failure of the OECD’s “two pillar” proposal here and here.
- The State of Tax Justice 2021, published by the Tax Justice Network with the Global Alliance for Tax Justice and Public Services International, found that the world loses $483 billion in tax a year to global tax abuse committed by multinational corporations and wealthy individuals. Of this loss, $312 billion is lost to cross-border corporate tax abuse by multinational corporations and $171 billion to offshore tax evasion by wealthy individuals.
- Read the full statement by President Thabo Mbeki here.
- The Tax Justice Network published last week an open letter to the G20 raising concerns about the OECD failure to deliver on G20 mandates on tax transparency and reform, and revealed that governments are losing $89 billion in corporate tax a year by abiding by the OECD concession to corporate tax abusers.
- The Corporate Tax Haven Index is a ranking of jurisdictions most complicit in helping multinational corporations underpay corporate income tax. The Corporate Tax Haven Index thoroughly evaluates each jurisdiction’s tax and financial systems to create a clear picture of the world’s greatest enablers of global corporate tax abuse, and to highlight the laws and policies that policymakers can amend to reduce their jurisdiction’s enabling of corporate tax abuse. Read more about findings from the 2021 edition of the Corporate Tax Haven Index here. See the full 2021 ranking here.
- The Financial Secrecy Index is a ranking of jurisdictions most complicit in helping individuals to hide their finances from the rule of law. Financial secrecy facilitates tax abuse, enables money laundering and undermines the human rights of all. The index identifies the world’s biggest suppliers of financial secrecy and spotlights the laws that governments can change to reduce their contribution to financial secrecy. Read more about findings from the 2022 edition of the Financial Secrecy Index here. See the full 2022 ranking here.
- See note 6 for more information about the State of Tax Justice 2021.
- The State of Tax Justice 2022 presents new analysis on the effectiveness of country by country reporting, and reveals that requiring multinational corporations that are already disclosing country by country reporting privately to disclose this reporting publicly can prevent $89 billion in cross-border corporate tax abuse a year – equivalent to preventing 1 of every 4 tax dollars lost to multinational corporations using tax havens to underpay tax.
- The UN Secretary-General’s “Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19” initiative is available here.
- Read more about the UN High Level FACTI panel’s report here.
- The WEF’s white paper is available here.
- The South Centre briefing is available here.
- More information about the world’s first UN tax convention draft proposed by civil society experts at Eurodad and the Global Alliance for Tax Justice is available here.
- More information on the May 2022 statement from the African Union’s conference of finance ministers is available here.
- Watch the Colombian Finance Minister’s announcement at the Tax Justice Network’s and Global Alliance for Tax Justice’s event of Colombia’s support for a UN tax convention, and their plans to encourage Latin American consensus.
- Read the UN Secretary General’s report here, published Tuesday 27 September 2022, announcing his support for negotiations to begin on a UN tax convention.
- Read the draft resolution tabled in October at the UN General Assembly’s Economic and Financial Committee for a UN tax convention here.