Center for Human Rights & Global Justice Conference
September 22-23, 2016
Over 200 people gathered at NYU School of Law on September 22 and 23, 2016, to explore the intersections between tax law and human rights law at the Conference on Human Rights and Tax in an Unequal World organized by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. The conference and edited volume of papers that will follow are part of a broader initiative by CHRGJ to promote scholarship and public debate on the relationship between inequality, the global economy, and human rights.
“Imagine if we were employing thousands of people in Wall Street to travel around the U.S. and developing countries and actually physically destroy public buildings, schools, and hospitals, or sack teachers and nurses. There would be an outcry—and people would say they are violating the human rights of those affected. Yet that is what is going on day in day out in these tall glass towers full of diligent accountants, lawyers and bankers . . . employed to help the world’s most powerful companies and individuals avoid paying their fair share.”
With those provocative words, the conference’s first keynote speaker, Oxfam International Executive Director Winne Byanyima, kicked off a challenging and important dialogue about the human rights implications of tax policy and tax abuse, and the human rights imperatives to challenge and change the tax system at both the domestic and international levels.
The event brought together leading practitioners and scholars from the fields of tax and human rights to discuss the ways in which tax policy can be viewed as a form of human rights policy, and how the international human rights framework might contribute to bringing greater equity and focus to the global tax regime.
The two opening panels on Day One framed the discussion, identifying the conceptual challenges of formulating human rights claims regarding tax policy, examining the appropriate balance between the rights of taxpayers with the human rights duties of States to society and other members of the public, and calling for disruptive shifts in the way we think about the international tax framework and the allocation of the tax base, if human rights are to meaningfully influence the way tax policy is designed and implemented.
Panelists explored the meaning of the right to equality in the context of taxation, presented empirical evidence of the human rights risks posed by regressive taxation, particularly in developing countries, and underscored the role for national and international human rights institutions in holding governments to account for the social impacts of their tax policies and enforcement practices.
Day Two deepened the debate through five panels on rights-related topics ranging from transparency of taxpayer information to discrimination in tax policy design and enforcement.
A lunchtime keynote address by Gabriel Zucman, a UC Berkeley economist best known for his studies of inequality with Thomas Piketty and his recent book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens, laid bare therole of corporate income tax policy and offshore tax evasion in spiraling economic inequality, reminding human rights and tax scholars alike of their shared obligation to address the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.
Panelists provided their perspectives on a variety of issues, including: the challenge of assessing the cross-border impacts of a country’s tax policies; the role of private sector actors in tax abuses and options for industry (self-) regulation; the disadvantages to developing countries of current multilateral tax reform processes; the appropriate limits of transparency in tax systems; and racial and gender-based discrimination in tax law in the United States.
The conference concluded with a lively session discussing how the structure and implementation of tax laws can perpetuate, exacerbate, or— potentially—rectify inequalities, with profound implications for the equal enjoyment of human rights by all. The closing debate spanned subjects as diverse as tampon taxes and for-profit policing, to the prospects of eliminating the racially disparate impact of the pro-capital bias in the U.S. tax code and the case for a universal basic income.
CHRGJ hopes that the conference will serve as the beginning of an ongoing inter-disciplinary dialogue and lead to future exchanges and collaborative research and writing between tax and human rights scholars.
KEYNOTE ADDRESS Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International
SESSION ONE: Are Human Rights Really Relevant to Tax?
Speakers: Allison Christians (McGill University Faculty of Law); Reuven Avi-Yonah (University of Michigan Law School); Edward Kleinbard (USC Gould School of Law); Mitchell Kane (NYU School of Law)
SESSION TWO: The Human Rights Dimensions of Tax and Tax Abuse
Speakers: Kathleen Lahey (Queen’s University Faculty of Law); Ahmed Kayum (Columbia University); Sandra Fredman (University of Oxford Faculty of Law); Alex Cobham (Tax Justice Network); Olivier De Schutter (U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)
SESSION THREE: Beyond “Spillover”: North-South Dimensions of Tax and Tax Abuse
Speakers: Attiya Waris (University of Nairobi, Kenya); Niko Lusiani (Center for Economic and Social Rights); Steven Dean (Brooklyn Law School); Mary Cosgrove (J. E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics)
SESSION FOUR: Private Actors and the Public Purse: The Roles of Corporations, Lawyers, Accountants in Tax Abuse
Speakers: Dan Shaviro (NYU School of Law); Joe Bankman (Stanford Law School); Radhika Sarin (Oxfam GB); Celine Braumann (*recent NYU LLM grad)
SESSION FIVE: The Responsibilities of Governments: The Case of Transparency
Speakers: Miranda Stewart (Australian National University); Joshua Blank (NYU School of Law); Arthur Cockfield (Queen’s University Faculty of Law); Tracy Kaye (Seton Hall Law); Alessandro Turina (IBFD)
SESSION SIX: The Role of International Organizations: The Architecture of International Tax Reform
Speakers: Michael Lennard (Chief, International Tax Cooperation and Trade, U.N. Financing for Development Office); Erika Siu (NYU Tax LLM alum, ICRICT consultant); Annet Wanyana Oguttu (University of South Africa); Monica Iyer (NYU alum; independent consultant); Matti Ylonen (Fulbright PhD student, Yale)
SESSION SEVEN: Tackling Inequality: Synergies between Tax and Human Rights Agendas
Speakers: Beverly Moran (Vanderbilt Law School), Ricardo Martner (CEPAL); Andre Smith (Delaware Law School); Bridget J. Crawford (Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University); Carla Spivack (Oklahoma City University School of Law); Daniel Hemel (University of Chicago)