Last month, there was an important milestone towards global tax justice at the United Nations. The eagerly anticipated resolution, proposed by Nigeria on behalf of African member states, is a historic opportunity to officially negotiate a legally binding UN Tax Convention and address the rigged international tax rules that discriminate against the world’s poorest countries.
Despite strong opposition from the world’s richest countries, including the USA, UK and EU, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of a UN resolution to establish an international framework convention on tax.
But how did this UN resolution happen, why is establishing a UN Tax Convention so important and how does it advance Justice for Africa?
FIRSTLY, WHY IS TACKLING GLOBAL TAX INJUSTICE IMPORTANT?
Tax, as recognised by the Tax Justice Network, is a “social superpower”. Tax revenue is the main sustainable source of income for governments, crucial to funding universal public services such as education, healthcare and social protection and a tool to challenge inequalities.
Tax injustice directly undermines this social good and allows powerful individuals and companies to ignore their social responsibilities to the people and places they profit from. Without a transformative change to global tax rules to end this injustice, governments across the world risks losing US$4.8 trillion over the next 10 years.
How many children’s education could this amount fund? How many families could be lifted from extreme poverty? How many lives could be saved if this money went to funding stronger healthcare systems? Tackling tax injustice is key to tackling global inequality and protecting human rights, it means that when a country’s resources are extracted, the children of that country will benefit from it.
WHERE DID THE CALL FOR A UN TAX CONVENTION COME FROM?
The Africa Group at the United Nations (UN), one of five regional blocs at the UN and representing 54 African countries, called for a UN Tax Convention as early as 2019, stressing that such a convention could help tackle illicit financial flows that cost Africa billions of dollars every year.
The proposal for a UN Tax Convention was also supported by high-level UN representatives and bodies. For example, in 2020 the UN Secretary-General’s ‘Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19’ initiative identified a UN Tax Convention as one of the options for Heads of State to fund development and COVID-19 recovery, stating:
“It is time to back a truly universal, intergovernmental process at the UN to comprehensively address tax havens, tax abuse by multinational corporations and other illicit financial flows that obstruct redistribution and drain resources that are crucial to challenging inequalities, particularly gender inequality”
Soon after, the final report of the UN’s High Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda included initiating a UN Tax Convention as one of its’ primary recommendations.
WHY DIDN’T A UN TAX CONVENTION MOVE FORWARD EARLIER?
Two years after the Africa Group had called for a UN Tax Convention, in April 2021, US President Joe Biden proposed a new initiative to introduce a fairer global tax system, including moving “toward an end to profit shifting and offshoring”. This was in part a reaction to the increasing losses affecting Europe and the US as major corporations increased their use of tax havens.
The negotiations for this new global tax initiative overshadowed the Africa Group’s proposal and were not led by the UN but by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Unlike the UN’s 194 Member States, the OECD has just 38 members, the vast majority of which are the world’s richest countries and zero African countries. Despite being an unrepresentative body, they have historically convened and led global tax negotiations. As the European Network on Debt and Development’s tax coordinator put it, “for half a century, global tax standards have been controlled by the OECD - also known at the ‘rich countries’ club”.
Although countries outside of OECD membership were able to join the “OECD/G20 Inclusive Framework” to engage in these critical discussions on global tax standards, there were specific conditions to do so and even today, less than a quarter of the world’s Least Developed Countries and only around half of African countries have joined. In May 2021, Nigeria’s representative, Mathew Gbonjubola, said of the OECD-led negotiations on President Biden’s proposal: “What I understand, with the . . . rules as currently being developed, is that developing countries may get next to nothing.”
Nevertheless, these tax negotiations led to the announcement in October 2021 that a new minimum global tax rate of 15% for big corporations had been agreed, allegedly making it harder for them to avoid taxation.
IF A NEW GLOBAL TAX DEAL WAS AGREED, WHY IS A UN TAX CONVENTION STILL NEEDED?
Despite claiming to be a global tax deal, not every country believes the process nor outcome was inclusive or beneficial for the needs of the world’s poorest countries, especially in Africa. Nigeria and Kenya didn’t support the final agreement, and two years later, more than half of African countries still haven’t signed on. In November 2021, Mathew Gbonjubola explained Nigeria’s reasons for refusing to support as:
“The final issue most developing countries had was that the developed world, within the inclusive framework, was very indifferent to the concerns expressed by most developing countries…When you look at the bulk of the money that would accrue from the project, if any, 70 per cent – 80 per cent will go to the developed countries. Almost nothing comes to the developing countries.”
Aside from being beset by delays since the October 2021 announcement, arguably the most glaring failure of the global tax deal was the decision to exclude extractive companies from the requirements of the agreement. This decision disproportionately impacts Africa, which has enormous natural resources.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo alone produces over 70% of the world’s cobalt, which is used in the batteries in
our mobile phones, our tablets, and our laptops. Zambia is one of the world’s top 10 copper-producing countries, Mali is one of the world’s top 20 gold-producing countries and Tanzania is one of the world’s top ten diamond-producing countries.
Yet they are all among the poorest countries in the world, with most of the profits from the extraction of these resources moved offshore into other countries and the pockets of billionaires and major corporations
The Laureates and Leaders and 100 Million campaign’s joint Justice for Africa’s Children report outlined the consequences of this decision to exclude extractive companies from the OECD deal:
“The excessive offshoring of the profits from Africa’s natural resources, which only benefits companies and their shareholders, is allowed to continue even though it means there remains insufficient funds to support marginalised children, with such devastating consequences. Rich countries have again drawn up their own rules and have ignored calls to move rule-making on tax to the UN. Kenya, Nigeria, and most low-income countries didn’t back the final deal, but it moved ahead anyway, bringing a fairer tax system for some – but not for Africa”
As a result of this and other failures, such as being accused of having “no teeth”, the Africa Group continued to push for international tax cooperation at the United Nations. When high-income countries tried to block this by saying it could distract or duplicate ongoing work led by the OECD, Nigeria’s delegate highlighted that African countries promoted this draft on the United Nations platform because it is a global organisation, unlike the OECD.
HOW DID THE AFRICA GROUP’S RESOLUTION ON TAX END UP BEING VOTED ON AT THE UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY IN NOVEMBER 2023?
On 23rd November 2022, three years after it was first called for by African governments and only after the OECD discussions had been completed, a resolution on global tax cooperation initiating discussions towards a UN Tax Convention was proposed by Nigeria and approved unanimously in the UN General Assembly’s 2nd (Economic and Financial) Committee.
This 2022 resolution titled “Promotion of inclusive and effective international tax cooperation at the United Nations” led to two main actions:
In Sep 2023, the UN Secretary- General released a report outlining three options for taking the initiative forward - 1) a multilateral convention on tax or 2) a framework convention on international tax cooperation, or 3) a framework for international tax cooperation.
A follow-up resolution submitted by the Africa Group in October 2023 to “establish a Member State-led, open-ended ad hoc intergovernmental committee for the purpose of elaborating a comprehensive convention on international tax cooperation” and that the committee would finalise its work “preferably not later than June 2025”.
This follow up resolution was discussed in the 2nd Committee of the UN General Assembly on November 22nd 2023, and passed by an overwhelming majority, with nearly two-thirds (125) of countries at the UN voting in favour.
WHY IS THIS VOTE SO IMPORTANT?
This vote means global tax rules, including the potential of creating a UN Tax Convention, will now be negotiated at the United Nations. As the Tax Justice Network recognised, this a historic achievement that “has for decades been considered impossible to achieve”, explaining that
“the last attempt to bring decision-making on tax rules to the UN was in the 1970’s… the failure of the attempt dissuaded any similar attempts for nearly 50 years”
This sentiment was echoed by the African Union, who called the result a “beacon of hope” and shared in a statement that
“the decades-long fight of Global South countries to establish a fully inclusive process at the United Nations to participate in agenda setting and norm setting on international tax is now a reality.”
With Africa severely underrepresented in many international decision-making spaces such as the OECD, G7, G20 and the IMF, these negotiations now taking place within the United Nations, a global body with equal representation, is a critical step forward. As highlighted by the European Network on Debt and Development, this resolution has “issued a strong call for all countries to sit down as equals and negotiate a fair, effective and truly global tax deal”, which, if achieved, “would be nothing short of a democratic tax revolution”.
Another factor that makes this vote so important, and rare, is that it was successful despite strong and active opposition from some of the world’s most powerful and richest countries.
WHY ARE SOME COUNTRIES AGAINST THIS DEMOCRATIC GLOBAL PROCESS ON TAX?
Unsurprisingly, some of the world’s richest countries, who enable the vast majority of global tax abuse, would prefer discussions and decisions on international tax rules to stay within the OECD, a body they control, rather than the UN.
The State of Tax Justice 2023 report revealed that over two thirds of global corporate tax abuse is enabled by OECD members, with European countries alone responsible for 48.8% of global tax loss inflicted by corporate tax abuse, whereas African countries are responsible for just 0.3%. Similarly, OECD countries are responsible for a staggering 92% of the $169 billion the world loses to offshore wealth tax evasion every year. In both cases, the bulk of harm comes from just 4 countries: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. All of them voted against the resolution proposed by the Africa group on November 22nd, 2023.
Not only did these rich countries vote against the Africa Group’s resolution at the UN General Assembly, but they have been accused of acting in “bad faith” during negotiations. Negotiators from developing countries told the Financial Times:
“The resolution called for a report. They’re rubbishing that report and they’re out to rubbish the entire process and just kill it. They don’t want to bring taxation matters here [to the UN]...We’ve tried to negotiate in good faith. The EU and the UK are not willing to do that and are trying to delay the process" “It’s a grand scheme to keep the status quo and keep developing countries at the periphery [of global tax discussions].”
At the last minute, the United Kingdom, which the State of Tax Justice 2023 report identifies as “the world’s greatest enabler of global corporate tax abuse” even tried to remove the word ‘convention’ from the resolution, which would turn it into a non-binding framework. This attempt to undermine and neutralise the agreement failed, with the UK amendment being rejected by 55 in favour to 107 against.
Despite claiming to be committed to international tax reform, the way the majority of the richest countries acted during these negotiations and vote clearly exposes how they are only interested in engaging when they’re the ones making the rules. This time, they lost.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS TOWARDS A UN TAX CONVENTION?
Passing this resolution has given a mandate to the UN to begin to develop and negotiate a new UN Tax convention. The budget for this process will be up for approval in December 2023 with negotiations between governments hopefully beginning in 2024, including the first step of agreeing a Terms of Reference to follow.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ADVANCING JUSTICE FOR AFRICA?
Negotiations on global tax rules taking place at the UN is an important step towards achieving Justice for Africa in itself, because unlike other fora, such as the OECD, Africa has equal representation at the decision-making table.
Africa having an equal, democratic voice during global tax negotiations is critical considering the colossal cost of tax injustice on African economies, with the continent losing $4.5 billion in corporate tax evasion and $2.3 billion in the offshoring of financial wealth every single year. This money could, and should, be spent on fulfilling the human rights of their citizens, including on essential public services such as education, healthcare and social protection.
Ending the ability of the rich to use tax loopholes that enable them to steal billions of dollars from African countries is urgent if we stand a chance of meeting the Sustainable Development Goal to deliver education for all by 2030.
Currently, almost 100 million African children and young people are still out of school. A key reason for this is the inadequate size of education budgets in many African countries compared to other regions. For example, the education budget of Italy alone is double the total of all Sub-Saharan African countries' education budgets combined.
This isn’t because African governments aren’t prioritising education in their national budgets. The average African country spends more of its budget on education than the most generous European country. The issue is the huge inequality in government revenue and, consequently, the huge inequality between the world’s young people.
The money currently lost to global tax abuse could be used to increase national budgets in Africa and be key in achieving universal access to education across the continent. This step towards a UN Tax Convention is a historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the current global tax system and ensure the profits made from Africa’s vast natural resources benefit African children and young people.