Statistics from the United Nations Development Programme reported to [Rio+5 conference] (CSD, 1997), are that the gap between the richest and poorest 20 percent of the world's people has doubled over the past 30 years, from 30-fold to 60-fold.
Conceptually, it is necessary to clarify what is understood by income distribution. The term is used here in a neutral sense, as a measurement of the way in which income is distributed in a given society. It goes beyond purely monetary aspects. Distribution of land, land tenure and other aspects of the legal structures and processes that determine the ownership and control of productive resources must also be considered. The exploration of the distribution of income and resources in society should be complemented by an examination of the existence or non-existence of redistributive measures designed to create more egalitarian social structures. Such issues have been the subject of substantial academic work in several disciplines, such as philosophy, economics and politics.
Each discipline has embraced these questions for different reasons. Strong controversies exist within each of them. Much of the debate has been carried out with ideological fervour and dogmatic positions have been taken up which have blocked proper dialogue. Common to much of the debate seems to be concern with the role of the state. Some consider it desirable to have a powerful state with the capacity to intervene effectively in the economy; others are strongly opposed to a substantial role for the state. Whichever approach is taken, the debate is of great significance for human rights, since under international human rights instruments, states have the primary responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. The conditions in which the state can perform this role require investigation, particularly in the light of the transitions which are at present taking place and which will be examined below.
The concern should not be with the causes of inequality - a subject which has given rise to an enormous literature, much of it of an ideological and dogmatic nature - which will not be examined in the present document. The focus here will be rather on the impact of different structures of international and national income distribution on human rights.
It is obvious that current, severe maldistribution of income prevents millions from enjoying economic and social rights. There can also be no doubt that gross inequalities prevent social harmony. Conflict, violence and extensive crime are to be found in societies where the gap between the rich and the poor is huge. In many societies with great social inequality trade unionism is blocked and democratic reform movements repressed through measures which violate civil and political rights.
It seems that the relationship between income distribution and human rights can be examined through various lenses. One is the lens of ethnicity and race: do certain racial, ethnic or other groups enjoy greater levels of human rights as a result of gaining access to higher levels of income ? An other lens could be the important notion of equality of opportunity for all in their access to resources, which has been provided for in Article 8 of the [Declaration on the Right to Development]. An other approach could be the consideration of violence, armed conflict or the emergence of militant social movements which claim a greater share of the benefits of development, including increased central government expenditure, land reform, the provision of public services and other benefits.
The main focus should be on remedial action to be taken in cases of intolerable levels of income inequality. At the same time, one needs to be aware of the opposition that exists in some quarters to greater equality. Part of such opposition is purely materialistic: those who are rich do not want redistribution, because they enjoy their riches. However, there are other more acceptable reasons: many oppose measures of redistribution because such measures have had negative consequences in the past, even for those who were the intended beneficiaries. Some categories of welfare measures, in the form of hand-outs, may reduce the level of inequality but may also reduce creativity and productivity, and may generate dependency. Consequently, the task is not simply to ensure greater equity but to do it in ways which are compatible with other basic goals in society. The measures must be socially and economically sustainable.
All international instruments concerned with economic, social and cultural rights are pertinent to the present study. Sometimes directly but in most instances indirectly, the realization of such rights requires that attention be paid to patterns of income distribution and the need to remedy negative aspects of those patterns. The right to work and to fair wages for work contains requirements as to the way in which income is distributed; the right to an adequate standard of living ([Universal Declaration], Art 25) also requires measures to be taken to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are protected against falling below the poverty line. The rights to health and to education have similar implications: at least a part of the total income of a society has to be redistributed in such a way that the most vulnerable and poor also have access to free education, at least at the primary level, and to primary health care.
Article 2.1 of the [International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights] requires each state party to undertake "to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation,... to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the... Covenant".
The [Limburg Principles on the Implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights] have assisted in clarifying this obligation. The obligation of "achieving progressively the full realization of the rights", in the Limburg interpretation, exists independently of the increase in resources; it requires effective use of resources available (emphasis added). Concerning "to the maximum of its available resources", the [Limburg Principles] state that attention shall be paid to equitable and effective use of and access to the available resources.