In the fight against austerity, human rights is not the answer

Amber Rudd’s rejection of the UN inquiry into poverty in the UK reveals what’s wrong with the discussion around austerity and human rights.

Mickey Keller
15 December 2018
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Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, November 21, 2018. Press Association. All rights reserved.

Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd has used her first appearance following her return to frontline politics last week to attack a UN inquiry into poverty in the UK for its “extraordinary political nature”. The inquiry headed by the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, was intended to assess the impact of austerity on the UK’s ability to meet its international human rights commitments. Alston ended his two-week fact finding mission by accusing the government of inflicting “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” policies

This is not the first time the government’s record on poverty and human rights has been criticised by the UN. As Aoife Nolan observes in the London Review of Books, seven of the eight UN envoys that have visited the UK since 2010 have raised concerns. For his part, Alston told a press conference that Britain was in breach of four UN human rights agreements. Unlike civil and political rights, these social and economic rights (which include the right to food, shelter and healthcare) cannot be enforced in UK courts and have historically occupied a second-class status.

Whilst civil and political rights largely require states to refrain from interfering in citizen’s lives, socioeconomic rights require state intervention to secure access to goods. The Government’s derisive response to this class of claims exposes the distinct but related structural weaknesses of socioeconomic rights. The Government’s derisive response to this class of claims exposes the distinct but related structural weaknesses of socioeconomic rights


This disparity is due in part to the indeterminacy of socioeconomic rights. To talk meaningfully about a right to an ‘adequate standard of living’ requires an ability to adjudicate that right. By comparison assessing whether a right to freedom from torture or freedom of speech has been breached presents a straightforward proposition. This allows politicians charged with implementing these rights considerable definitional discretion. 

In 2016 when the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Disabled Persons found that the government was guilty of "grave and systematic violations" of disabled people's rights, the government responded by refuting the committee’s findings and its “offensive” view of disability. This deniability depoliticises tension by reducing it to misunderstandings or misapplications of rules, the presence of which promise redress within the system.

This deniability depoliticises tension by reducing it to misunderstandings or misapplications of rules, the presence of which promise redress within the system. In response to Professor Alston’s inquiry a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions reiterated that it was “committed to upholding the rule of law and rules-based international systems”. This depoliticisation obscures the role of the system and its distribution of resources and power in creating the conditions in which rights are violated.


While the Government continues to pay lip service to its treaty commitments, any criticism based on socioeconomic rights will be branded ‘too’ ideological or political. 

That these rights are afforded less significance is no accident. As Samuel Moyn has argued, human rights’ commitment to individual freedom coincides with neoliberalism's commitment to the market, property rights and suspicion of the state.

This coincidence conspires to circumscribe the class of acceptable claims leaving those claims that challenge existing economic relations strictly off-limits. When Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur on housing, called on the Government to rethink the ‘bedroom tax’, arguing that it eroded the right to adequate housing, the then housing minister Kris Hopkins labelled her report a “misleading Marxist diatribe.”

Rights claims’ focus on procedural rather than substantive equality fits neatly within the neoliberal narrative of individual responsibility. Individuals are authors of their own success, all that is required of the state is to carve out a sphere of activity free from oppressive or overbearing bureaucracy. 

A more modest role for rights?

Philip Alston’s inquiry received nearly 300 submissions from charities, experts and individuals, a record for a UN audit. He heard how nearly half of children in the UK live in poverty.

He heard how nearly half of children in the UK live in poverty. How 1.5 million people, including 350,000 children, experienced destitution in 2017. How a disabled former soldier lost 16kg in weight whilst living on universal credit. How, in the fifth largest economy on earth, cuts to disability benefits, welfare reform and council budgets have led to increases in food bank use, rough sleeping and destitution.

In the face of suffering on this scale, the failure of human rights raises stark questions. Defenders of rights might reasonably respond that the discourse of rights was never intended as a comprehensive political programme.

Nevertheless the prominence of rights as a progressive discourse is in danger of crowding out other political possibilities. When compared with socioeconomic rights, the alleged apoliticism of civil and political rights naturalise and protect distributions of property and power. Any future role for rights must reckon with the unintended consequences of their claims to universalism.  

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Ryerson University’s Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration and openDemocracy have teamed up to host this free live discussion on 15 April at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Ana Beduschi Associate professor of law, University of Exeter

Hilary Evans Cameron Assistant professor, faculty of law, Ryerson University

Patrick McEvenue Senior director, Strategic Policy Branch, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Chair: Lucia Nalbandian Researcher, CERC Migration, Ryerson University

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