Shanty towns on the outskirts of a city in Colombia, with skyscrapers visible in the distance

Without resources there are no rights

Since it was founded in 1961, Amnesty International has observed how states around the world are selectively and differentially strengthening their capacities to guarantee the human rights of populations in their countries. In the Americas, we have long observed with concern how governments of the day have made inadequate use of the available financial resources, so that the protection of human rights is intentionally deprioritized.

It seems obvious, but ensuring the protection of human rights requires the prioritization of public budget allocation in all related areas. For example, the limited number of people working in the administration of justice in most countries of the region explains in part the procedural backlog in justice systems and the resulting impunity and this is linked to the shortfall in public expenditure for the strengthening of justice systems and, in some countries, to prevailing corruption.

Without sufficient resources there is no full guarantee of the exercise of rights. We are well aware that addressing the crisis of disappearances in several countries requires resources to establish institutions, mechanisms and specialized methodologies to search for people and protect forensic evidence, as well as prevention mechanisms. The response to and eradication of feminicidal violence requires specialized centres and units close to women and girls, and this requires the prioritization of public resources.

The lack of public resources for social policies that guarantee basic rights to historically marginalized communities has been one of the central elements preventing states from responding to the multiple human rights crises facing the region. That is why at Amnesty International we have focused our calls on ensuring fiscal justice during the ministerial-level Latin American and Caribbean Summit for an Inclusive, Sustainable and Equitable Global Tax Order, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia, on 27 and 28 July.

Of course, collecting tax revenues requires effective accountability mechanisms to ensure transparent and adequate use of public money. But the exercise of rights also requires a fair distribution aimed at meeting historical social demands. At Amnesty International, we have joined the call for a fair fiscal policy initiated by a long list of sister organizations, including Oxfam, ICRICT, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, the Latin American and Caribbean Tax Justice Network, Fundar, DeJusticia and the Center for Legal and Social Studies.

What does a fair tax policy look like? It looks like a series of measures to expand state budgets towards investment in public goods and services that guarantee the exercise of human rights, with a view to equity that allows effective access and equal opportunities for all people, and particularly for population groups historically discriminated against and marginalized, either by racist and colonial policies or by the epidemic of corruption that affects the continent.

Among other measures, a fair fiscal policy means a progressive approach to taxation and public spending, imposing higher tax contributions on those with higher incomes and higher public spending on those facing greater inequalities in accessing their rights. In addition, taxes can be a tool to discourage or compensate for activities that can harm health or the environment, such as the exploitation of fossil fuels. It also involves ensuring that debt decisions and austerity measures do not limit the ability of states to guarantee human rights.

Low public spending on health and social protection – a product of low tax collection – resulted in Latin America and the Caribbean being the most lethal region in the world during the Covid-19 pandemic

Unfortunately, our authorities have neglected their obligation to maximize resources to guarantee our rights. Currently, nations in Latin America and the Caribbean collect on average 21.7% of what they produce per year, while the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries is 34.1%. In many countries, a significant percentage of these taxes are regressive, such as Value Added Tax for example, as they disproportionately affect the poorest households. Likewise, our states do not have the tools to reduce the inequalities that the market produces and that impact access to economic and social rights by the most vulnerable people and groups, in which women and members of Indigenous peoples and Black communities are overrepresented.

A lack of public resources not only reduces rights, but costs lives. Our report Unequal and Lethal showed that, among other reasons, low public spending on health and social protection – a product of low tax collection – resulted in Latin America and the Caribbean being the most lethal region in the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some elements of current fiscal policies also have a direct impact on fuelling the climate crisis. In 2022, fossil fuel subsidies from the region’s 19 largest economies totalled US$166 billion. If Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico halved these annual subsidies, they would prevent catastrophic health expenditures for almost 6 million people or they could guarantee the right to education for more than 7 million students. That is, the largest economies have various alternatives regarding expanding their fiscal space, but they have preferred austerity rather than securing our future.

Addressing the climate crisis requires international cooperation mechanisms to ensure that the poorest countries do not pay the price of the consequences of a phenomenon almost exclusively attributable to the consumption model of the Global North. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, half of the countries facing high climate vulnerability are also under financial debt pressures. In the Americas, countries such as Haiti, Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, Dominica and Belize are among those with the greatest environmental vulnerability and at the same time are highly economically vulnerable.

This summit is an opportunity to advocate for debt relief for countries facing the climate crisis with a simultaneous debt crisis and to demand that global resources for climate change adaptation and mitigation be subsidies and not loans. This implies a profound reform of the international architecture that encourages greater investment in human rights and climate justice. It is true that there is also a need for transparency and accountability mechanisms in those countries to prevent corruption and mismanagement of resources from continuing to contribute to their own crises.

We hope that at this summit states will commit to moving the region towards economic policies that ensure a dignified life for all its inhabitants, and that they adopt strong positions to reverse global trends that have downgraded the guarantee of human rights and climate justice.

States in the Americas must urgently agree on a common minimum tax that reflects the fair share that transnational companies operating in the region must pay and that strengthens the progress made by the OECD in 2021. The 15% global tax set in these negotiations remains too low to be able to achieve greater tax justice at the global level. We also need effective action to combat the tactics that higher-income companies and individuals use to avoid paying their fair share of contributions. Effective regional coordination should lead, for example, to unequivocal support for the African initiative on a UN tax convention.

It is time to put an end to public policies that are not centered on human rights. We must not be indifferent; our future is on the table in Cartagena.