Over the past decade, many millions of Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty, largely thanks to public investments in health, education and social protection. Not coincidentally, the country experienced great economic success in these years, buttressed by a burgeoning domestic demand-driven economy.

These crucial advances are now under serious threat, however, as the government seeks to implement a swathe of draconian austerity measures that are unnecessary, inefficient and most likely in violation of human rights law. 

In the face of a spiraling political and economic crisis, the Brazilian government announced a series of deep fiscal adjustments starting in the spring of 2015. In recent years, many governments across the globe have resorted to drastic public expenditure cuts in the name of fiscal austerity. Few, however, are as sweeping in nature or severe in their human rights implications as Brazil's 'PEC55' constitutional amendment. This re-writing of the Constitution freezes spending for health, education and other key social areas for the next 20 years. The reform in essence locks in fiscal austerity in critical areas of public social spending until 2036, preventing any future governments from democratically deciding the proper investment needed to fulfill its human rights obligations. Estimates suggest that an increase of 37% in public health care expenditure over this period will be needed to meet the needs of Brazil’s aging population. Yet, this will be constitutionally prohibited under the ‘PEC 55’ amendment.  In the field of education, these drastic measures ensure that no additional resources will be made available to build schools, preschools, kindergartens, or to improve public universities, basic education or teachers’ salaries – making the achievement of the country’s educational goals practically impossible. This amendment will also have the pernicious effect of deepening existing economic inequalities resulting from the country’s tax and fiscal policies, which have been shown to prevent people from escaping poverty, particularly among already disadvantaged groups such as Afro-Brazilian women.

While the pretext given for these reforms is a need to decrease deficits by improving the country’s sovereign debt rating, evidence is abundantly clear that fiscal consolidation in times of economic crisis is economically inefficient and dangerously counterproductive, as detailed by CESR during the European sovereign debt crisis. Empirical findings from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also illustrate that cutting budgets during economic recession actually tends to increase deficits while deepening and prolonging the recession, worsening unemployment levels and decelerating economic recovery. What’s more, Brazil could alleviate the fiscal pressures it is facing by combatting tax evasion and seeking increased revenue contributions from the burgeoning class of high-income earners who currently pay relatively little to government coffers.

Working in close collaboration with Brazilian partners INESC (o Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos), Oxfam Brasil and Conectas, CESR is working to combat the human rights impacts of these ill-conceived reforms. Following our joint advocacy, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights also intervened with a strongly-worded statement.

As explained an op-ed article published in El País, the measures included in PEC 55 violate Brazil’s obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, along with the American Convention on Human Rights and the San Salvador Protocol on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Various international human rights oversight bodies, including the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have already called on the country to ensure its austerity measures do not contravene its human rights obligations.

More specifically, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued normative guidance to all states parties – including Brazil – confirming that fiscal consolidation policies deployed in times of economic crisis had to meet certain criteria in order to comply with human rights. These included that such austerity measures be temporary, strictly proportionate, non-discriminatory, and that they take into account all possible alternatives, including tax reform. They should also identify and protect the minimum core content of human rights and be adopted with genuine participation of all affected groups. Brazil’s PEC55 amendment does not meet any of these conditions.

With political and economic uncertainty continuing to beset both ordinary Brazilian people and the country’s political class, it is impossible to predict what the future may hold. Plans being pursued by the current administration are sure to severely undermine the economic and social rights of ordinary Brazilians, however, especially among vulnerable groups such as children, Afro-Brazilian women and those already living in poverty. Building on our extensive experience working at the interstices of human rights and fiscal policy, CESR will continue to work with our Brazilian allies as they endeavor to prevent this far-reaching assault on human rights.