The past few years have been prosperous for countries across the Americas. Most governments have made good progress in expanding economies and young democracies. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last decade alone; they have been able to access jobs, healthcare and education.

But alongside these positive developments lies another, very different story. The region is still home to 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world. The enormous gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” means that across every corner of this vast, vibrant and resource-rich region, millions still face a dire reality. They struggle to survive amid poverty, violence, police brutality and high levels of discrimination according to gender and ethnicity.

Thousands of indigenous communities live at the mercy of companies who want nothing but to profit from the land they live in. People are ostracized and treated as second-class citizens because of their sexual orientation. Courageous human-rights activists and journalists are punished for delivering a message few want to hear.

These are just a few of the examples. Over the past year, I have been able to meet some of the people behind those numbers.

Too often, the message seems to be: if you are poor, justice is out of reach. Courts are only available to those who can afford them. The rule of law, an essential requirement for any country to function properly, is weakened, making societies unsafe for all.

Time and again, governments across the continent have made commitments to reduce inequality, promote equitable development and guarantee the protection of human rights without discrimination. But promises are no longer enough: tackling inequality with concrete action is the only way for the region to truly move forward.

There is no easy solution to end inequality in the Americas, but there are a number of steps that only require political will. Governments across the region could, and should:

  • Commit and invest political and financial resources to strengthen the region’s criminal justice system and ensure it stops being a luxury for those who can afford it
  • Tackle the links between politicians and criminal networks, which allow abuses to take place and go unpunished
  • Establish and implement an effective regulatory framework to ensure that companies respect human rights wherever they operate, in accordance with UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
  • Ensure that reports of human-rights violations by police and security forces, as well as armed gangs, are promptly investigated. Send a zero-tolerance message by bringing all perpetrators to justice.

Ironically, the instability and conflict brought into being by discrimination, inequality and a failing justice system puts at risk the very prosperity that governments and the private sector are pursuing. The price for failing to take urgent action is one the Americas can no longer afford to ignore.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America 2015 takes place in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from 6-8 May. 

Author: Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International.

Image: A view of the Turano slum in Rio de Janeiro March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes