Amnesty International is today calling for social security to be made available to everyone worldwide after a series of crises exposed huge gaps in state support and protection systems, leaving hundreds of millions facing hunger or trapped in a cycle of poverty and deprivation.
In a briefing issued today, Rising Prices, Growing Protests: The Case for Universal Social Protection, the human rights organization also calls for international debt relief, and urges states to enact tax reforms and clampdown on tax abuse, to free up substantial funding to pay for social protection.
“A combination of crises has revealed how ill-prepared many states are to provide essential help to people. It is shocking that over 4 billion people, or about 55% of the world’s population, have no recourse to even the most basic social protection, despite the right to social security being enshrined since 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
The briefing shows how rising food prices, climate change, and the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are driving a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, and leading to increased social unrest and protests.
It urges states to ensure that social security coverage — such as sickness and disability payments, healthcare provision, pensions for older people, child support, family benefits and income support — is available to every person who may need it.
The briefing shows how the lack of social security in many states has left communities more exposed to sudden economic shocks, the consequences of conflict, climate change, or other upheaval. The fallout from these crises, including widespread hunger, higher unemployment and anger at falling living standards, has motivated protests around the world, which have often been brutally suppressed.
“Universal social protection can address the violations of economic and social rights that are often at the heart of grievances and protest. Instead of viewing peaceful protest as an expression of people’s attempts to claim their rights, authorities have frequently responded to demonstrations with unnecessary or excessive use of force. Peaceful protest is a human right and Amnesty International campaigns to Protect the Protest,” said Agnès Callamard.
The briefing calls for international creditors to reschedule or cancel debts to enable them to better fund social protection. It also highlights that the cost of offering basic social security protection in all low income and low-to-middle income states is estimated at US$440.8 billion a year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an amount that is less than the US$500 billion the Tax Justice Network estimated is lost annually by states to tax havens around the world.
Amnesty International urges states to work together and to use all their resources, as well as reform of their taxation systems to stop evasion and loss of critical revenues, to help ensure funds are available to improve social protection.
“People have been brought to their knees by these crises, and when it comes to fixing the problems in the world, the solutions are rarely simple, but we do know that states should get serious about clamping down on tax abuse,” said Agnès Callamard.
To guarantee the right to social security, Amnesty International supports the establishment of an internationally administered Global Fund for Social Protection, a concept supported by UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, the UN Secretary-General and the ILO.
The creation of a fund would offer states technical and financial support to provide social security and would aim to build the capacity of national social protection systems to scale up their responses in times of crisis.
Hunger, poverty and protests
The lack of adequate social security can be catastrophic for the growing numbers of people struggling to afford food.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says 349 million people around the world are in immediate danger from a shortage of food, and 828 million go to bed hungry every night.
Furthermore, according to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, the Covid-19 pandemic has wiped out almost four years of progress in poverty reduction and pushed an additional 93 million people into extreme poverty, living on less than US$ 2.15 a day.
The lack of effective measures to mitigate inflation and shortages has led to a downward spiral in people’s living standards. This has contributed to protests around the world recently, including in Iran, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka.
The rising price of food and other essential items has hit people living in low-income countries the hardest, but the increased use of food banks in wealthier countries shows that the cost-of-living and food affordability crisis is widespread.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major grain producer, has dealt a devastating blow to global food supplies, and pushed the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index to its highest point since records began in 1990. Climate change, and spiralling fertilizer prices, have hit agricultural production too. Drought is the greatest single contributor to reduced harvests, according to the FAO.
Social security, tax and debt
Amnesty International is part of a growing coalition of experts and civil society organizations calling on states to progressively deliver universal social protection, and to realize the benefits it will bring.
Agnès Callamard said: “Protecting people against losses due to shocks, from disasters or economic reversals, can be transformational, both for society and the state that provides the support, by reducing social tension and conflict, and promoting recovery. It enables children to stay in education, improves healthcare, reduces poverty and income inequality, and ultimately benefits societies economically.
“We cannot continue to look away as inequality soars, and those struggling are left to suffer. Tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance by individuals and corporations are depriving states and particularly lower income countries of the resources they need.”
High levels of debt, and the cost of servicing it, mean that heavily indebted states often lack the financial capacity to realize social security aspirations. Low-income countries spend four times more on debt repayments than they do on health service provision, and 12 times more on debt payments than on social protection, according to Oxfam.
According to the IMF’s annual report around 60% of low-income countries are in debt distress or at a high risk of debt distress, and risk defaulting on repayments. Debt cancellation or rescheduling would free up substantial funding in many countries to pay for social protection.