Policy and Advocacy

NGO coalition pens open letter to Taoiseach calling for urgent waiver to allow Covid-19 technology-sharing

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” For our politicians, that time is right now.

24 February 2021

The pandemic is still raging across the world – and without strong moral leadership, people in developing countries will suffer the most.

Given the limited global supply, many people in low- and middle-income countries won’t have access to vaccines until at least next year, while it’s been reported that if current trends continue, the world’s poorest countries could have to wait until 2024 for mass immunisation.

Not only is this level of inequity a catastrophic moral failure that will lead to needless suffering and loss of life, ongoing outbreaks could lead to new vaccine-resistant variants developing. Without urgent united action to achieve herd immunity in developing nations, the health crisis and resulting economic crisis here and worldwide will continue.

That’s why today, a coalition of Irish organisations, networks and unions, wrote an open letter to Taoiseach Micheál Martin urgently requesting Ireland’s support for proposals to allow Covid-19 vaccine technology to be shared openly through an emergency waiver at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This emergency waiver would allow more vaccines and treatments to be produced on a global scale.

The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO members to provide long-term monopoly protections for medicines, tests and the technologies used to produce them.

But after a global campaign by public health and development groups, in 2001 the WTO issued a binding declaration about better balancing TRIPS intellectual property protections and public health needs.

With the EU currently blocking the waiver, the letter – coordinated by Oxfam Ireland and signed by Access to Medicine Ireland, ActionAid, Amnesty International Ireland, Comhlámh, Concern, Dóchas, Goal, the Irish Global Health Network, INMO, MSF, Oxfam Ireland and Trócaire – details how the EU’s current position threatens the prospects of ending the pandemic, despite the waiver being supported by more than 100 nations at the WTO.

The Coalition writes:

Ireland has a well-deserved reputation of supporting the human rights of the world’s poorest people. We are respected for our constructive engagement, acknowledging the importance of collective efforts amongst states for the problems that pay no heed to borders, such as the coronavirus pandemic. With so many of the world’s poorer nations supporting this emergency waiver already, you can help maintain Ireland’s moral and public health leadership in the world by siding with the majority to prioritise saving lives. Indeed, not doing so is self-defeating, as it is clear that the sooner the world’s population is vaccinated, the sooner EU citizens are safe.

While the signatories acknowledge that the waiver will not completely solve the problem, it will allow for a temporary space within the WTO rules to empower governments to move quicker when accessing intellectual property-protected technologies needed to protect public health.

Thus, we respectfully request that you break with the unconscionable policies the EU has supported before the next WTO General Council meeting of March 1-2 and announce that Ireland will no longer support opposition to the temporary, emergency Covid-19 WTO waiver of certain TRIPS provisions.

Posted In:

Historic climate win in French court as law rules in favour of Oxfam and partners

The people have had their say – and in this case, it was the people of France.

In December 2018, four NGOs – including Oxfam France – launched a legal action against the French government for failing to cut the country’s emissions fast enough to meet its climate commitments.

The four organisations were backed by a record 2.3 million people, all of whom had signed a petition supporting the action.

Now a French court has found in favour of the plaintiffs, agreeing that the country’s political leaders have failed to take adequate action to tackle the climate crisis.

This marks the first time that the French state has been taken to court over its climate responsibilities – and the decision leaves the government open to lawsuits from French citizens who have suffered climate-related damage.

It could also force the French government to take further steps to cut its emissions.

Other countries, including Ireland, have already brought similar cases to court. In June 2020, Friends of the Irish Environment took the Irish government to the Supreme Court for failing to take adequate action on climate change – and won.
Climate Case Ireland was the first case of its kind in Ireland and only the second case in the world in which the highest national court of law required a government to revise its national climate policy in light of its legal obligations.

Michael McCarthy Flynn, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Oxfam Ireland, said:
“As our own Supreme Court has already put the Irish government on notice for failing to take adequate action on climate change, in a similar case, it is essential that the new Climate Change Bill currently going through the Oireachtas is robust enough."

- Michael McCarthy Flynn, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Oxfam Ireland
Ireland’s win followed that of the Urgenda Climate Case in the Netherlands in December 2019, when the country’s Supreme Court upheld previous decisions that the Dutch government had a duty to urgently and significantly reduce emissions in line with its human rights obligations. Climate change litigation is increasingly seen as a way to influence policy, according to a 2019 report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. The report, co-published by the London School of Economics and Political Science, revealed that more than 1,300 climate cases have been filed in at least 28 countries, with governments cited as the main defendant in over 80 percent of cases.
Back in France, the government’s proposed climate law is, by its own admission, not enough to achieve its target of cutting emissions by 40 percent by the end of this decade. Even this target is not enough to put the country on track to tackle the climate crisis, Oxfam France said.
“For the first time, a French court has ruled that the State can be held responsible for its climate commitments. This sets an important legal precedent and can be used by people affected by the climate crisis to defend their rights.

“This is a source of hope for the millions of French people who demanded legal action, and for all of those who continue to fight for climate justice around the world. It is also a timely reminder to all governments that actions speak louder than words.”

- Oxfam France
The French government now has two months to appeal the court’s decision. While the four NGOs have asked the court to order the state to take extra measures to fulfil its climate commitments, the court has reserved its decision until later in the spring, allowing for further discussions between the two parties.
Oxfam launched the legal action because the climate crisis is fuelling poverty, hunger and inequality around the world. Often it is the poorest countries that have contributed least to the crisis that pay the highest price. In September 2020, Oxfam revealed that the richest one percent of people produce more than double the emissions of the poorest half of the world population combined.

Irish corporate tax policy to be assessed by the UN as a human rights issue

As reported in the Irish Times the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has taken the decision to examine the impact of Ireland’s international tax policy on the ability of countries of the Global South to raise revenue and fulfil their human rights obligations, in particular those that relate to children. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) Ireland is obliged to avoid policies that undermine the human rights of children at home or abroad. This is the first time that the external impact of Irish tax policy will be assessed under an international human rights instrument, and comes in response to a detailed submission  from a coalition of Irish, Ghanaian and international civil society organisations, including Oxfam Ireland.

Tax policy is critical for the realisation of human rights. It shapes states’ capacity to raise revenue, fund essential public services, and consequently to fulfil their human rights obligations. Academics, UN experts and civil society organisations have all emphasised this link, particularly in relation to economic, social and cultural rights – without fair and functioning taxation systems, efforts to deliver adequate housing, healthcare and education and to tackle poverty and inequality are badly undermined.

Crucially, this impact is not limited neatly within national boundaries. In a globalised economy, multinational corporations can exploit divergent domestic laws and a climate of competition, rather than cooperation, between states to dramatically reduce their tax bills. Through complex corporate structures, profits are shifted across borders into low or no tax jurisdictions, sheltering billions of euro every year, eroding tax bases and public budgets. These practices are particularly harmful for developing countries, which are more reliant on corporate income tax than higher income countries. Vital revenue is siphoned away, prolonging a country’s reliance on aid, exacerbating inequality and keeping people trapped in poverty.

Too often Irish corporate tax policy is considered only from the narrow perspective of the benefits it can bring to Ireland – insufficient attention however is given to its negative impacts beyond our borders. Other countries’ ability to raise badly needed revenue is undermined by tax avoidance, and in countries of the Global South, this can mean the difference between life and death.

Ireland’s role in the international tax avoidance landscape is well-documented, recognised by EU institutions, UN Commissions, bodies within the US Congress, and academics. A recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that ‘more than $616 billion in profits were shifted to tax havens in 2015, close to 40% of multinational profits’, and identified Ireland as ‘the number one shifting destination, accounting for more than $100 billion alone.’ Ireland also continues to negotiate tax treaties with countries of the Global South in a manner that facilitates avoidance, and undermines other countries’ capacity to raise revenue. In pursuing a recent tax treaty with Ghana, Ireland went against the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who advised that the effect of such tax treaties between ‘developed and developing countries is that capital flows from developing to developed nations’.

Growing public demand for tax justice has brought increased scrutiny on these practices, including by UN human rights monitoring bodies. In 2016, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) expressed concern regarding Switzerland’s financial secrecy and tax policies and how they impact other states’ capacity to raise revenue and fulfil women’s rights. Successive UN Special Rapporteurs on extreme poverty and human rights have called on governments to stop facilitating avoidance, and to recognise the impact this has on some of the world’s poorest communities.

In October 2020, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child announced that, for the first time ever, the negative consequences of Irish tax policy will be examined under the framework of another key international human rights treaty: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As a party to this Convention, Ireland is obliged to avoid policies that foreseeably undermine the realisation of children’s rights, at home or abroad, and its progress is reviewed at UN level every five years. But as the evidence presented to the Committee demonstrates, it is currently failing to meet these obligations due to its facilitation of harmful tax avoidance.

The Irish government must now formally address the impact of its tax policy on the realisation of children’s rights in other countries, in a detailed submission due by the end of 2021. It will then be formally reviewed by the Committee at hearings in Geneva in May 2022 for compliance with its international law obligations under the Convention. The coordinating civil society organisations, including Oxfam Ireland, will also build on their initial submission and provide further evidence to the committee as part of this process.

Posted In:

The need for a debt moratorium in the time of coronavirus

Debt Moratorium - our Pre-budget Submission recommendations

Developing countries are being hardest hit by the COVID crisis – unfortunately, they lack the financing mechanisms widely used across the EU to mitigate the worst impacts of the pandemic. A fall in exports and commodity prices has wiped out anticipated revenue, and with the expectation of recovery being pushed out to 2022 and beyond, hunger and poverty are skyrocketing. The sense of urgency will only grow. However, European institutions and Member States like Ireland could reduce the burden on developing nations by facilitating and supporting debt relief for the world’s poorest countries.

The World Bank and the IMF have already called for an unconditional moratorium on debt interest payments for poor countries. This move – if supported – would free up an estimated $44 billion in Africa alone, which could then be allocated to public health services. Cancelling the debt is the easiest way to keep money in country and free up resources to tackle the urgent health, social and economic crises resulting from the pandemic.

Shockingly, in 2018, the total debts of developing countries were 191 percent of their combined GDP. They were due to pay approximately $400 billion of debt repayments this year. In light of the coronavirus crisis, in particular, it makes no sense for poorer countries to transfer vital resources to rich nations. Before the pandemic, 46 countries were spending on average four times more on repaying debt than on their public health services. As the virus took hold, the costs of the debt burden continued to be paid through cuts to the state services of the world’s poorest people, with women being the hardest hit.

The United Nations has called for $2.5 trillion to rescue the economies of developing countries in the time of coronavirus. This funding would include debt release, aid for health systems, as well as creating additional finance flows, including the issuing of Special Drawing Rights. Experts have encouraged G20 leaders to lead this call for funding as they warn of “unimaginable health and social impacts”.

Debt relief is a must – not an option – and is vital to provide fiscal space to invest in health and economic recovery.

Posted In:

Budget 2021: Poverty, climate and coronavirus should take centre stage

On Tuesday 13 October, the Irish government will unveil Budget 2021. We have released our pre-budget submission in the hope of ensuring that this year’s budget provides support to those who need it most, is climate centric, and addresses the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we are all familiar with the enormous challenges faced by Ireland due to the pandemic, the situation in low-income countries is much more dire. A fundamental part of ensuring that low-income countries can prevent the spread of the disease is by supporting infrastructure. This can be done by the government through corporate tax reform, official development assistance and a debt moratorium.

As it is impossible to form solutions to global poverty and inequality while corporate tax avoidance drains $100 billion in resources annually from low-income countries, Ireland needs to further reform its corporate tax avoidance and double taxation treaties. This can be done by contributing to a second generation of international tax reforms and by supporting a transformative international reform of corporate tax leading to an equitable rebalance of taxing rights between developed and developing countries.

In terms of official development assistance (ODA) during the COVID-19 crisis, it is paramount that the funding of aid is not cut. Instead, aid to combat the pandemic should be additional – not supplemented from the current aid budget. Furthermore, Ireland needs to publish a roadmap for meeting its 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) commitment on ODA with detailed year-on-year increases and continue to uphold the country’s reputation for delivering highly effective aid.

Finally, in order to ensure that low-income countries have the tools to combat COVID-19, Ireland should support an immediate, unconditional moratorium on debt interest payments for poorer countries. In Africa alone, this act would free up $44 billion this year to finance public health and fight the virus.

While is it fundamental that we support, in global terms, the furthest behind first, that must also be the case here in Ireland. Care work is the “hidden engine” that runs our economy and is predominately done by women and girls who often sacrifice autonomy, community engagement and personal income. Care work in Ireland and around the world is highly gendered and undervalued, with many in the care sector earning poverty wages. Ireland should ensure proper State-funded wages and supports for care workers, hold a referendum on Article 41.2 of the Constitution to include gender neutral language, and prioritise gender budgeting which enables the allocation of funds in a way that promotes gender equality.

Finally, COVID-19 is not the only threat to our world right now. As the virus rages on, the devastating impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having real consequences on people’s lives. In some of the world’s poorest countries, lives and livelihoods are under threat due to changes in temperatures, rainfall and intensity of natural disasters. The insecurity cause by climate change perpetuates and deepens poverty. To combat this deepening crisis, richer countries likes Ireland need to reduce carbon emissions and provide sufficient climate financing to ensure that the nations most impacted by climate breakdown have the resources to implement adaptation and mitigation measures. In many cases, the countries most impacted by climate change are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Against the backdrop of this virus, Budget 2021 provides the Government with an opportunity to build on the above commitments and improve the lives of people living in, or vulnerable to, poverty and crisis.

Posted In: