Austerity measures undermine social rights of Europeans

The whole spectrum of human rights has been affected by austerity measures undertaken by European governments, an Issue Paper published by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights reveals.

Europeans are living through the deepest economic recession since the Second World War. What began as a meltdown of the global financial system in 2008 has been transformed into a new political reality of austerity which threatens over six decades of social solidarity and expanding human rights protection across Council of Europe member states.

The initial government responses to the economic crisis were characterised by unprecedented fiscal and monetary policies aimed at guaranteeing social protection while stimulating economic demand to prevent a full-blown global depression. However, since 2010, many governments have focused on austerity policies as emergency measures, often side-stepping regular channels of participation and accepted democratic checks and balances. European and international institutions of economic governance have also assumed a central role in enforcing austerity.

Many of these austerity measures – characterised by public expenditure cuts, regressive tax hikes, reduced labour protection and pension reforms – have exacerbated the already severe human consequences of the economic crisis marked by record levels of unemployment. The whole spectrum of human rights has been affected – from the rights to decent work, an adequate standard of living and social security to access to justice, freedom of expression and the rights to participation, transparency and accountability. Vulnerable and marginalised groups of people have been hit disproportionately hard, compounding pre-existing patterns of discrimination in the political, economic and social spheres. Poverty, including child deprivation, is deepening and is likely to have long-term effects. In some cases, the economic crisis is undermining the very capacity of central and local authorities to deliver on the basic promises of a social welfare state and ensure human rights protection for all.

Economic policy is not exempt from the duty of member states to implement human rights norms and procedural principles. As embodied in international human rights law, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are not expendable in times of economic hardship, but are essential to a sustained and inclusive recovery. There is growing national and international jurisprudence on the implementation of human rights in the crisis context. This is particularly the case for states’ obligations to protect economic and social rights, avoid further erosion and retrogression of these rights and prevent disproportionate impacts of austerity measures on particular sectors of the population. The cross-cutting human rights principles of non-discrimination, equality, participation, transparency and accountability have a specific significance in responses to the crisis.

Human rights standards do not represent precise policy prescriptions. Economic policy in times of crisis requires a complex decision-making calculus, and governments enjoy a margin of discretion in choosing the means for safeguarding rights in times of economic constraint which best fit their circumstances. Nonetheless, human rights and equality do provide a universal normative framework and operational red lines within which governments’ economic and social policies must function. This Issue Paper provides practical guidance to Council of Europe member states in navigating the historic opportunities and difficult policy choices they face in upholding human rights duties in times of economic constraint. The Commissioner proposes a set of actionable recommendations and measures which help forge a new path along which governments can align their economic recovery policies with their commitments to human rights and equality. It is necessary to reinvigorate the European social model based on the foundations of human dignity, intergenerational solidarity and access to justice for all.

National human rights structures (NHRSs) such as ombudsmen, human rights commissions and equality bodies have an essential role to play in times of economic crisis. As statutory and independent advocates of human rights and equality, NHRSs have great potential to promote human rights compliant responses to the crisis and protect people from discriminatory measures which result in inequalities. They can take an active role in assessing policies and budgets according to human rights standards and create platforms for civil society and government to debate austerity measures. As accessible, low-threshold complaints bodies, NHRSs protect people from infringements of their rights resulting from austerity. Governments should strengthen the effectiveness and independence of NHRSs so that they are empowered to assume a critical role in safeguarding human rights during economic crisis.