Austerity policies in Europe are fuelling social injustice - and violating human rights

A new report by the Council of Europe provides detailed evidence that austerity measures have corroded civil and political rights and made economic, social and cultural rights less attainable.  Will the governments of Europe recognise the social cost of austerity – and can ‘human rights’ work as a tool of resistance?

Heather McRobie
23 December 2013
Greek riot police cascading down steps of a state building

Greek riot police. Photo: Eric Vernier/Flickr

A report by the Council of Europe, released earlier this month, provides detailed evidence that European austerity measures have corroded civil and political rights, made economic, social and cultural rights less attainable, and entrenched social injustice and inequalities – and, crucially, it highlights how these different spheres interact to disproportionately harm Europe’s poorest and most marginalised.

The report by the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, ‘Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis’ consolidates evidence that measures presented under the emergency cloak of ‘austerity’ – from reduced workers’ rights to cuts to public services, combined with an assault on longstanding civil and political rights necessary for liberal democracy – work as a whole to shift the entire relationship between citizen and the state, and undermine, in the report’s words, ‘the spectrum of human rights’. 

The Human Rights Commissioner’s report is one of the most significant criticisms of ‘austerity’ from within the European human rights system – and has been widely received as a damning verdict on the Barroso Commission and the EU for its failure to safeguard rights, as well as a clear criticism of the policies pursued by many national European governments and Council of Europe member states over the last three years.

The report is striking not just as a clear voice from within the European human rights system criticising ‘austerity’ as a whole and the national governmental policies that have been advanced in its name, but also in terms of how it presents the overall landscape of the rights that Europeans have lost.  Both civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other are under threat – and the presentation of these two ‘types’ of rights as equally significant is an indirect criticism of the discourse within the EU and in western statecraft, and the way in which it has sought to downplay the necessity of securing economic, social and cultural rights in order for democracy to meaningfully function. 

The report highlights a number of ways in which what could be characterised as classically ‘civil and political rights’ have been threatened by policies and tactics advanced as part of austerity programmes.  The undermining of civil and political rights of citizens in cyclical response to popular resistance to austerity is also outlined.  Spain’s proposed 2013 law curtailing the right to protest on the grounds of ‘security’ is highlighted as an example of an encroachment of freedom of assembly and part of a broader shift towards stripping away long-standing traditions of civil and political rights. In addition, the report highlights how the civil and political rights of marginalised groups and ethnic minorities have been corroded in numerous countries which are Council of Europe member states, due to the policies of xenophobic and right-wing governments that have strengthened their regional power across Europe since 2008.

But while documenting the curtailing of civil and political rights under austerity is an important step in making the case that the guise of ‘austerity’ has been used to stifle dissent and curb meaningful democratic participation, perhaps the more significant part of the Council of Europe report is where it outlines the ways in which economic, social and cultural rights have been jeopardised by European governments in the wake of the financial crisis and recession.  The report presents concerns to the encroachment on this sphere of rights on equal terms to civil and political rights.  It reminds states of their commitments under international human rights law enshrined in the International Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and documents how ‘austerity’ policies such as reduced protection of labour rights, cuts to vital public services such as healthcare and education, and pension reforms in countries such as Spain, Greece and Britain are a violation of these rights. 

One of the report’s key recommendations is that governments should “ensure social protection floors for all” by maintaining social security guarantees for basic income and healthcare “to ensure access to essential goods and services during the crisis.” Not only are these measures taken under the guise of ‘austerity’ interplaying with historically high levels of unemployment to entrench pre-existing social inequalities and modalities of discrimination, but – according to the case built by the Council of Europe – they are also a violation of economic, social and cultural rights from the right to adequate housing to the right to education. 

All rights must be secured for any to be meaningful

It’s true that there are differences between civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other – and ‘western’ governments have at times sought to exploit this difference to their advantage, by denigrating the centrality of economic, social and cultural rights within the framings of human rights. The language of international human rights law concerning economic, social and cultural rights – demanding governments make use of all ‘available’ resources and framing commitments in terms of ‘progressive realisation’ – makes this set of rights qualitatively different to civil and political rights: what exactly is entailed by a government’s pledge to something like ‘ensure adequate education’ is necessarily different to the more negative-liberty framings of many civil and political rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

These qualitative differences, however, do not position the two ‘types’ of rights in a hierarchical relationship with one another, and only came to be seen as such with the evolution of human rights legal systems throughout the twentieth century, as the development of international human rights mechanisms was politically utilised as a terrain firstly for Cold War politics and then for post-2001 ‘war on terror’ rhetoric.  The Council of Europe’s 2013 report is significant in how, without denying the economic, social and cultural rights are different from civil and political rights in terms of how they are secured and protected, it reasserts their centrality within human rights – and to democracy.

What we know, from the last three years, ‘austerity’ means in reality – loss of labour rights, the gutting of essential social provisions from adequate housing to access to health services, from education and food, to regressive taxation that further punishes the poorest parts of society –  combines to form a mass violation of a series of key human rights, and creates a climate in which democracy cannot meaningfully function.  And in a time when civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and assembly are also under threat.  And in a period of mass unemployment.  (And, to take a further step back, in a period marked by pockets of resurgent xenophobia and extremism).  It is this whole picture – the civil and political rights corroded; the failure to meet citizen’s economic, social and cultural rights – that enmeshes social injustice.  Across the board, in every area of a citizen’s life, from their employment to housing, to their health and education opportunities, to their right to participate in democracy, ‘austerity’ entails social injustice whilst ensuring citizens have little chance to fairly resist it.

Human rights as a tool to fight ‘austerity’ as shock doctrine?

The argument that austerity entails a violation of the whole range of human rights would help to formulate the case against European austerity policies as a whole – rather than the fragmentation of resistance since 2010, as the cuts and regressive measures worked in tandem with the strain of mass unemployment, in which austerity often had to be resisted piecemeal, exhaustingly countering each attack in turn.   And while various progressive and left-wing perspectives have at times dismissed human rights’ emphasis on the individual as too atomistic to be a useful framework for working for the goals of social justice, the lens of rights may work where language of social inequality has failed – partly by highlighting how each different facet of austerity harms us (as individuals and as communities) in different ways – and by highlighting how each of the social goods or provisions that have been threatened by national European austerity projects are necessary as part of a wider whole. 

Faced with the ‘austerity’ situation in which your right to protest, your right to adequate housing, your right to education, and your worker’s rights are all on the line, a comprehensive resistance – and comprehensive refutation of the whole ‘austerity’ project – could be built by asserting clearly again why all of these key rights and entitlements are needed.   ‘Human rights’ can do this if we salvage them from the western, Cold War-era framing in which the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights lost its equal footing alongside the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

These binaries have been surpassed in human rights theory by ideas relating to human development and capabilities.  The capability approach developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others has cumulatively built the case that civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other are inherently interrelated and must be secured in tandem for any core rights or entitlements to be meaningfully practiced or fulfilled.  Regarding the more practical question of how resistance to ‘austerity’ can be reframed, the Council of Europe report on austerity and human rights works as a reminder that government policies in the United Kingdom, Spain, Greece and elsewhere are failing to uphold their commitments in international human rights law by violating, by stealth, their citizens’ economic, social and cultural rights.

For there is a flipside to the idea outlined above that civil and political rights on the one hand and economic, social and cultural rights on the other are interrelated and must be secured in tandem.  It also means that all ‘types’ of rights unravel in tandem too – as we have witnessed over the last three years.  This is the combined legacy of government policies enacted under the guise of ‘austerity’ when taken as a whole – civil and political rights are stripped away just as many would draw upon them to express their lack of consent to the austerity project of reducing vital public services and other economic and social rights. 

The Council of Europe report lines up in a row what have often been separate conversations and concerns – the encroachment of civil and political rights and the steady criminalisation of dissent, alongside the gutting of social provisions and community services – whilst linking them to the entrenchment of pre-existing forms of discriminations and modalities of social exclusion, leaving the marginalised and vulnerable within societies poorer, weaker, demonised – in short, attacked on all sides.

The policy frameworks of ‘austerity’ do not operate on exactly the same lines as the ‘disaster-capitalism’ outlined by Naomi Klein in her work The Shock Doctrine, in which neo-liberal economic restructuring is imposed as citizens, laid low by disaster, crisis or coup, are too weak to resist.  But there has been a similar dynamic at play in the last three years in terms of the relationship between the criminalisation of dissent (Spain’s anti-protest draft law being the most recent striking example), continued high levels of unemployment, and government policies that cut public expenditure whilst re-writing the state-citizen relationship increasingly favour of the state.

Looking at European ‘austerity’ as a whole project, and its effects on a range of social goods necessary for both social justice and democracy, the picture points to the idea that the most effective way of framing resistance to austerity is through a re-assertion of human rights – and one that, in turns, asserts human rights as they were conceived in the immediately post-war era, and as they have been further imagined under the capability approach – in which all rights must be secured at once for any one right to be meaningful.  Resistance to austerity must be re-framed to urgently highlight how we have lost or are losing all of these rights, cut by cut and law by law. 

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