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UN expert body warns world of austerity threat to human rights


When the cure is more damaging than the ailment, can we really speak of recovery? In the United States and much of Europe a bitter human price is being paid for the continuing austerity drive, while the massive bailouts afforded to financial insitutions have rendered little in the way of economic revival. And with meaningful recovery still remaining elusive, the logic of deficit reduction uber alles is finally being challenged not just on the streets, but also in the halls of political power.

In his recent speech to the UN General Assembly in New York, Mr. Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, urged governments considering austerity measures to remember that protecting these rights is not just a legal obligation, it is also good economics.

"Many States are faced with difficult decisions that have to be made in the face of rising public deficit and poor economic growth," he said. "Yet taking retrogressive steps in relation to economic, social and cultural rights is not only contrary to one’s obligations under the Covenant, but is also increasingly acknowledged as a disincentive to growth and does not, therefore, constitute an escape route out of the crisis."

He went on to warn of the dangers of shortsighted retrenchment in social spending: "taking retrogressive steps can lead to social insecurity and political instability, and can often have a disproportionate impact on women, children, and especially disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and groups. I would, therefore, encourage States parties to our Covenant to ensure that policies dealing with the economic downturn are in line with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights."

Under Article 2 of the Covenant, states parties are required to adopt and implement laws and policies to achieve improvements in universal access to basic goods and services such as health care, education, housing, and social security. These advances are to be achieved by deploying the maximum of available resources, and without discrimination. CESR’s research into the impacts of the crisis shows that such considerations have been ignored by many governments in the rush to implement austerity measures, which instead of promoting progress have steadily undermined some of the most basic dimensions of a life of dignity.

Moreover, the dominant discourse that draconian cutbacks are the only option for crisis-hit countries – which are also charged with creating the quagmire through profligate spending – is demonstrably false. The idea that leading central banks and international financial institutions are neutral bodies, and that they must be unencumbered by public scrutiny as they discharge a technocratic and apolitical role, has likewise been refuted.

The Committee has echoed the voice of civil society in affirming that human rights standards do not become dispensible in times of economic crisis. Instead, the principles underpinning economic and social rights, in particular, become all the more important when fiscal pressures threaten the well-being of ordinary people. Governments who have voluntarily ratified the Covenant  are obliged at all times to justify any cuts that might undermine people’s rights by demonstrating that they are reasonable in reference to the totality of rights. They are also required to fully explore alternative sources of revenue, such as tax policy reform, and to ensure the principles of transparency, public participation and accountability are provided for in the policy cycle. Had governments in countries like Ireland and Spain given more consideration to these obligations before implementing severe austerity programs, much of the human suffering engendered by their ill-conceived crisis response policies might have been avoided.

Civil society organizations have worked hard to provide evidence of the harmful effects of unchecked austerity measures in the context of the most recent state reviews before this body. During its 48th session held in May this year, and amidst growing concern over the legality of austerity packages in a variety of countries, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights took the unusual step of issuing an open letter to clarify the matter. The comuniqué reminded governments that the Covenant “provides certain important guideposts which can help States Parties to adopt appropriate policies that deal with economic downturn while respecting economic, social and cultural rights”. These guidelines make it clear that such policies should be temporary, non-discriminatory, necessary and proportionate in nature. They should also consider all possible measures, including tax reform, and provide for the minimum core content of rights affected, sometimes captured in the idea of a social protection floor.

Mr Pillay’s latest call for better protection of economic and social rights in the context of the crisis comes at a pivotal moment, as the IMF has admitted that it previously underestimated the pernicious impact of overzealous spending reductions, and its Managing Director Christine Lagarde has spoken out personally on the dangers of further cuts. Even European Commission Chief Juan Manuel Barroso, a staunch “austerity hawk”, has recognized the crucial importance of restoring growth to beleaguered European economies. There are also encouraging, albeit incipient, signs of private sector institutions such as credit ratings agencies being held to account for their role in fomenting a dysfunctional financial system.

As noted by Mr Pillar in his address, the human rights framework also has a critical role to play in achieving better development outcomes in the future. “Indeed, the promotion and protection of economic, social and cultural rights is the foundation for achieving the key ‘beyond-2015’ issues related to discrimination and inequalities, education, health, social protection, macro economic stability, intellectual property rights and many other issues,” he said.

In the same vein, here at CESR we believe the human rights framework represents more than a set of constraints on policy options; it also opens the door to justifying alternative approaches to economic downturn that offer a way out of the crisis while also protecting the fundamental dignity of all. Better financial regulation, equitable forms of  taxation like the financial transaction tax and greater emphasis on the duty of governments to cooperate in the mobilization of resources to prevent the need for austerity to begin with—especially by  combating corrosive tax evasion—are all foundations to a human rights-centered economic policy in times of crisis.

With the consensus among policy-makers finally beginning to swing away from austerity, we can see the human rights-respecting approach to the crisis beginning to finally emerge. The achievement of this goal is far from a foregone conclusion, however, and with unnecessary spending cuts continuing to undermine human rights all around the world, much work remains to be done. For this reason CESR and its partners will continue working to expose the fiscal fallacies underpinning austerity, and to promote policy alternatives and to seek justice for the systemic human rights consequences of the economic crisis. To learn more about our work, visit the ‘Rights in Crisis’ page.