Austerity from a human rights perspective
A decade after the recession, millions of people around the world continue to face significant social and economic hardship, both because of the crisis itself and Governments' response to it.
While record capital was mobilized to bail out the banking sector, austerity measures usually involved a mix of cuts in social spending, contractionary fiscal policies, pension reforms, privatization of public utilities, and reduction in food and heating subsidies. One study estimates that austerity impacted over two thirds of all countries, affecting more than over 6 billion people or nearly 80% of the global population.
High levels of unemployment caused poverty levels to rise. As austerity policies directly affected the ability of States to fulfill the human rights to health, food, work and social security, they contributed to social exclusion, a sharp rise of inequality, and a drastic increase in homelessness, as documented by UN Expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky.
Austerity measures proved particularly punitive for the most vulnerable in society, like the elderly, youth and the poor. According to UN Women, economic pressures on households may also increase domestic violence. Thus, the people who suffered the most from the financial crisis and its aftermath were the ones least involved in its making.
The minimum essential right to an adequate standard of living must be ensured, even in times of economic crisis or recovery.
All States that are a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have the obligation to use the maximum available resources to progressively realize economic, social and cultural rights. This means that everyone is guaranteed an immediate, minimum essential level of these rights, without discrimination. For the right to food, for example, the minimum core obligation consists of ensuring that no one suffers from hunger. Yet, few countries have national accountability mechanisms that effectively monitor and protect economic and social rights.
The long-awaited entry into force in 2013 of the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is still awaiting ratification by a number of EU Member States, allows individuals to claim these rights before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Human rights do not dictate the specific measures that States should take when faced with a financial crisis. However, they draw certain red lines that should not be crossed. Accordingly, all States must ensure, at the very minimum, that their economic policies do not endanger the actual enjoyment of human rights in their territory or abroad.
Although human rights treaties impose these obligations on States, they are not exclusively a national issue. International financial institutions are also bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has become customary international law.
States further have a positive obligation to ensure adequate financial regulation, as necessary to safeguard human rights. The Guiding Principles on Foreign Debt and Human Rights further prescribe that a State’s obligations to repay external debt should not undermine its ability to meet its minimum core obligations in economic, social and cultural rights.
Not all reduction in public spending is harmful for human rights. For example, replacing medical products by generic drugs can actually improve the accessibility and affordability of health care and thus strengthen the realization of the right to health.
Budgets and economic reforms should respect the basic principles of non-discrimination, transparency, participation and accountability and prioritize human rights.
Human rights impact assessments can support Governments and international financial institutions in complying with their international human rights obligations when carrying out economic reforms, whether voluntary or imposed as lending conditionalities. The aim of such reforms should be to strengthen, adjust and close gaps in social protection systems, not to dismantle or undermine them.
Transparency, access to information and meaningful participation of stakeholders is also critical for the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, as the realization of these goals will depend on the mobilization and efficient use of resources.
Existing inequities in global governance also need to be tackled and international trade, finance and investment policy need to be explicitly and systematically aligned with international human rights law and principles of due diligence. Only then can we move from a vicious to a virtuous cycle.
Birgit Van Hout
Regional Representative for Europe, UN Human Rights Office
The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.