Austerity measures may violate human rights

Half a decade has passed since the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States developed into a global financial crisis. In response, many countries undertook large-scale “bailouts” of virtually bankrupt banks. With the bailouts and other knock-on effects of the financial crisis, public deficits have risen sharply in many countries.

Students in a rally in Spain © EPA/JAVIER CEBOLLADAGovernments, notably in Europe, have responded to mounting deficits with “austerity” measures - making drastic reductions to public expenditure.

Austerity has entailed rapid decreases in standards of living as cuts have been made to public services and social protection, while unemployment levels have risen dramatically.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 October 2012, the Chairperson of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, noted that although States face tough decisions when dealing with rising public deficits, austerity measures are potentially violations of the legal obligations of States Parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

“All States Parties should avoid at all times taking decisions which lead to the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights,” Pillay said, citing an open letter to States Parties from the Committee earlier this year. The letter elaborated the Committee’s position on austerity measures.

By ratifying the Covenant, States Parties have a legally binding obligation to progressively improve, without retrogression, universal access to goods and services such as healthcare, education, housing and social security and to ensure just and favourable conditions of work, without discrimination, in accordance with established international standards.

These rights must be achieved by using the maximum of available resources. However, Pillay pointed out that austerity measures are also a disincentive to economic growth and thereby hamper progressive realization of economic and social rights.

The Committee had pointed out that social insecurity and political instability, as seen in parts of Europe today, were also potential effects of the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights. The poor, women, children, persons with disabilities, older persons, people with HIV/AIDS, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees were particularly at risk, the Committee had noted.

In a recent statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concern over rising social tensions inflamed by the effects of the economic crises in Greece and Spain and the broader adverse impacts of austerity measures on the most vulnerable.

Several United Nations human rights experts have recently highlighted how austerity measures are incongruent with economic, social and cultural human rights and called for banking sector reforms and human rights-based approaches out of financial and economic crises.

2 November 2012

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