Human rights have traditionally been seen as the “rights enjoyed by individuals which the state has a duty to respect and protect.” Given this individual focus, the question of whether human rights can provide a means of resistance to the growing social injustice of austerity is awkward but is gaining currency. Injustices linked to austerity measures tend to be social and economic in nature and are included in international human rights conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Right.
The UK is a signatory to the Covenant and is therefore legally obliged to protect people’s economic and social rights. But ministers and officials consistently refuse to remedy - or indeed, even acknowledge or address - the social and economic deprivations and lapses catalogued by the UN International Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in its periodic reports on the UK for 1997, 2004 and 2009.
This injustice has not failed to catch the attention of human rights bodies. Last year, the Council of Europe adopted a text calling on European governments “to end 'their quasi-exclusive focus on expenditure cuts in social areas such as pensions, health services or family benefits'” and claiming that “the implementation of austerity measures is often linked to bodies 'whose character raises questions of democratic legitimisation'”, such as the troika of the IMF, the European Commission and the ECB.” Last October, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated: “austerity measures must respect the principle of equality and scrupulously avoid discrimination.”
An enthusiastic advocate of the role human rights can play in challenging austerity is Magdalena Sepulveda Carmona, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, who visited London last week. During her informal visit, Dr Sepulveda took part in debates on this very issue, one of which I attended at Middlesex University. She critiqued the disproportionate impact austerity measures have had on the vulnerable, often used to “impose an ideological agenda”, coupling regressive taxation measures and public spending cuts with tax exemptions for the wealthier sections of society. Asserting that a human rights approach can challenge bad economic policies that create and perpetuate poverty, she focused on two areas where human rights can challenge austerity measures.
The first tool of resistance is challenging the process through which austerity measures are implemented. These have been largely undemocratic and lack the features of a rights-based approach: participation, transparency and access to information. Dr Sepulveda stated that no dialogue or impact assessment was carried out prior to the implementation of these policies and alternative policy options were not analysed. Writing here in 2011, Dr Aoife Nolan reported on the human rights breaches of such an approach by the coalition government, “particularly those relating to an adequate standard of living, social security, health and adequate housing” by applying “deliberately retrogressive measures.”
Sepulveda further stated that in addition to such lack of transparency and consultation on policies that profoundly affect people’s lives, the process has also involved violent police repression against social protest, such as in Greece. In Spain, protesters have been greeted with rubber bullets leading Amnesty International to speak out against the impunity Spanish police seem to be afforded. Sepulveda criticised the lack of accountability for this state-sponsored violence against protesters trying to protect their families and livelihood. The British police have also stockpiled and threatened to use rubber bullets against anti-cuts protesters.
The second tool human rights provide is protection for vulnerable sections of society adversely impacted by these measures. The decrease in the provision of basic social services has had “an accumulative impact on the poorest who depend on these services.” In Britain, this is clear through cuts to child benefits and disability benefits. Coupled with cuts, eligibility to existing services is restricted, services which have so far kept many in Europe out of poverty.
Women were singled out due to the “striking” accumulative impact of the austerity agenda on them. In Britain, women make up more than half of public sector workers: cuts to these services will mean not only the loss of benefits but their jobs too. Unemployment may be higher among men but it is rising faster among women. With ending violence against women the UN’s theme for International Women’s Day this year, cuts to legal aid, shelters, advice and other services will make this a more unachievable hope for many victims of domestic violence in Britain.
Sepulveda stated that although the human rights movement has not played a role in dealing with poverty so far, human rights are a tool and a means of mobilising and challenging power structures. They are an effective tool to challenge the otherwise unchallenged economic crisis discourse promoted by a scaremongering media and political establishment that victimises the vulnerable for the state’s failure to protect them. Framing the argument in terms of states’ obligations to their citizens challenges the narrative of hand-outs to “benefits scroungers.” With the growing crisis in the most basic of needs such as food, this reframing could address the rights and entitlements people have.
In Britain, where legal practitioners and campaigners have brought about many positive changes by using these very same human rights tools, access to social justice is further being tightened through cuts to legal aid. The president of the Supreme Court has stated that such cuts could undermine the rule of law and “risked damaging faith in the democratic system.”
Sepulveda, from Chile, stated that many in Europe had thought they were immune to poverty, yet the same neo-liberal policies seen elsewhere have created this crisis. While perceptibly affecting the most vulnerable for now, the impact will be felt far more widely across society, particularly with the longer-term effect on the young. In April, with the latest rounds of severe cuts coming into force, many different ways of challenging the official narrative will have to be found.
Dr Sepulveda stated that the “social crisis has opened up a window of opportunity.” With growing social unrest, frustration which is close to breaking point and coping mechanisms in danger of being “exhausted”, the link between human rights and social justice is important: social justice and social harmony are interdependent. However, one may also question whether there is any point trying to salvage a system so unequivocally based on all forms of injustice and exploitation, a system clearly on its way to total collapse.
Note: Dr Sepulveda’s visit to the UK was informal and thus she was not able to comment on specific country policies. All comments on UK and European policy are those of the author.