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UN urges governments to prioritize human rights over austerity




The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has echoed advocates of alternatives to austerity in an unusual open letter urging governments worldwide to prioritize human rights in times of economic crisis. The Committee, which is the UN’s preeminent body monitoring compliance with economic and social rights, used the occasion of Spain’s recent appearance before it to issue the communiqué, clarifying for all governments a set of criteria by which to judge the lawfulness of austerity measures.

The letter begins by calling on States Parties to “avoid at all times taking decisions which might lead to the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights,” adding that “apart from being contrary to their obligations under the Covenant [on economic, social and cultural rights], the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights by States Parties to the Covenant can lead to social insecurity and political instability and have significant negative impacts, in particular, on disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, such as the poor, women, children, persons with disabilities, older persons, people with HIV/AIDS, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees.”

It doesn’t stop at critiques, however but explains also how human rights law offers a way ahead. The Covenant, says the Committee, “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”.

“At the heart of the Covenant is the obligation on States Parties to respect, protect and fulfill economic, social and cultural rights progressively, using their maximum available resources,” it continues. “This requires States to adopt and implement laws and policies that aim to achieve incremental improvements in universal access to basic goods and services such as health care, education, housing, social security and cultural life.”

The letter goes on to explain the criteria by which decisions about austerity measures should be guided: “The Committee emphasizes that any proposed policy change or [fiscal] adjustment has to meet the following requirements:

  1. first, the policy is a temporary measure covering only the period of the crisis;
  2. second, the policy is necessary and proportionate, in the sense that the adoption of any other policy, or a failure to act, would be more detrimental to economic, social and cultural rights;
  3. third, the policy is not discriminatory and comprises all possible measures, including tax measures, to support social transfers and mitigate inequalities that can grow in times of crisis and to ensure that the rights of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups are not disproportionately affected;
  4. fourth, the policy identifies the minimum core content of rights, or a social protection floor, as developed by the International Labor Organization, and ensures the protection of this core content at all times.”

The Committee concludes by reminding States that their obligations not only apply domestically, but are also applicable to their conduct within the international financial bodies which so deeply influence national-level austerity measures. “International cooperation is a fundamental obligation for the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights,” it affirms. “States Parties to the Covenant should respect their obligations in relation to economic, social and cultural rights when making decisions, including on official development assistance, in international financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, regional financial institutions and regional integration organizations.”

The Committee’s guidance should also be heeded beyond the halls of international institutions. Governments, national human rights monitoring bodies, community organizations, civil society and the public can all further the cause of social justice by deploying these new guidelines and the Covenant itself to advocate for and creatively construct human rights-centered alternatives to austerity.

The full text of the Committee’s letter can be accessed in pdf format here.