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Rising to meet austerity’s onward march

Despite abundant evidence of its negative human rights impacts, and growing consensus that it is counterproductive in economic terms as well, austerity’s onward march has continued in many countries. Nowhere is this threat more apparent than in Latin America, where fiscal austerity programs together with regressive tax regimes are threatening to undo a decade of progress in combating poverty, reducing inequality and protecting economic and social rights.

On 11 April CESR and its partners in the Latin American human rights, development and tax justice communities organized a landmark event, Fiscal Policy and Human Rights in Times of Austerity, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) bringing together distinguished figures from the UN and Inter-American human rights systems and civil society representatives from the region. The meeting, which came during the 157th period of sessions of the IACHR, addressed the pressing need for a human rights-centered analysis of the austerity programs currently looming over the region. The participants teased out the linkages between human rights and fiscal policies, and examined the impacts of austerity cuts already being felt in countries like Mexico and Brazil.

The threat of austerity comes at a moment of acute fiscal vulnerability for Latin America. Growth in the region has all but ground to a halt, and many governments are planning to follow the same flawed policy programs that exacerbated recession and fuelled stark human rights retrogression in Europe. Speaking at the meeting, Carmen Salcedo, expert on the jurisprudence of the European Committee on Social Rights, highlighted this body's critical role in protecting the social rights of the most vulnerable in the face of fiscal adjustments across Europe.

It is estimated that fiscal adjustment across Latin America will result in the loss of over 500,000 jobs and reduce GDP by 2.43 percent between 2016 and 2020. An increase in regressive consumption taxes as well as pension, labour and wage reforms are particularly prevalent among the adjustment measures planned across the region. And just as significantly, the specter of austerity now haunting the region comes despite the ready availability of human rights-centered alternatives, such as more progressive taxation and measures to recover revenues lost through tax abuse.

Speaking at the event, CESR board member and former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Magdalena Sepúlveda explained why human rights defenders must get to grips with the issue of fiscal policy. “For decades the human rights movement has been reticent to enter into the area of redistribution and fiscal policy, but that is changing,” she explained. “Raising tax revenue is essential to combat inequality, and to generate resources for the enjoyment of human rights. It allows governments to fulfill those rights, but it is also supremely important for social cohesion, good governance and accountability.”

Also participating in the meeting was Rodrigo Uprimny, member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, who elucidated the normative standards that have emerged from the Committee’s jurisprudence in the face of the global economic crisis and the human rights retrogression it has caused. Ricardo Martner, Coordinator of the Fiscal Policy Area at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), meanwhile discussed regional trends in fiscal reform and public spending adopted in response to the economic slowdown. He pointed out that tax evasion continues to be a critical problem, sapping government revenues across the continent.

Aligning fiscal policies with human rights standards would mean, among other considerations, releasing huge flows of revenue that are currently concealed in financial secrecy jurisdictions, making them available to confront the chronic deprivations that continue to afflict ordinary people in all corners of the world. As the recent ‘Panama Papers’ scandal has shown, abusive tax practices are a tremendous impediment to the realization of human rights. Yet all too often they are facilitated by the very people who have maximum responsibility for upholding human rights, including heads of state and other senior politicians.

Amidst growing concern over the threat austerity programs are posing to human rights in Latin America, CESR also co-convened a regional meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, on 11 May with DeJusticia and Red de Justicia Fiscal de América Latina y el Caribe. The event brought together leading experts from across the Americas to discuss challenges and opportunities to achieving fiscal reforms that might better protect social rights and tackle inequality in the Andean region. These events are part of efforts by CESR and its partners to expand regional normative protection of economic, social and cultural rights and encourage more dynamic intervention by the Inter-American Human Rights System in confronting fiscal injustice in times of austerity.


CESR's partners in organizing the April 11 meeting at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were: Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Dejusticia, Fundar, Grupo Faro, Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (INESC), International Budget Partnership, Latindadd, and Red de Justicia Fiscal de América Latina y el Caribe. The regional meeting held in Bogotá, Colombia, on 11 May was convened in collaboration with Dejusticia and Red de Justicia Fiscal de America Latina y el Caribe.