In difficult economic times, human rights should not be expendable

Countries around the world face great uncertainty and diminished growth prospects as they struggle to overcome the lingering effects of the global economic and financial crisis.

Candles shape the word 'NO' in Greek, at the spot where an elderly man committed suicide in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens in 2012 © EPA/SIMELA PANTZARTZIExperts at a panel discussion on the side-lines of the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva analysed the impacts on human rights of the economic downturn and the austerity measures set-up by countries in response.

“As a result of the financial crisis, the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights and that of States to fulfil their obligations to protect human rights has diminished,” said Bat-Erdene Ayuush, Head of the Right to Development Section at the UN Human Rights Office. “This is particularly true of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of society that suffer from decreasing access to work and social welfare programs, and decreasing affordability of food, housing, water and other necessities.”

The independent expert on foreign debt, Cephas Lumina, noted that international financial institutions often required borrower countries to implement structural adjustment programs – such as cuts government spending on social services, reforms on pensions, or privatization of public companies - as a condition for loans, grants and debt relief. Since the beginning of the European sovereign debt crisis in 2009, stricter austerity measures have been implemented in those countries.

“The overwhelming view is that these policies have destroyed livelihoods, increased poverty and inequalities and left many poor countries ensnared in externally prescribed or approved policy frameworks that not only make it difficult for them to comply with their human rights obligations, but also undermine their development and result in impoverishment of their citizens,” Lumina said.

He added that austerity measures had also sparked widespread civil unrest in some countries of the Eurozone. In some cases, authorities had responded with shows of force that threatened the rights to life, personal security and freedom of association of protestors.

Participants noted the unprecedented number of suicides committed during the crisis, arguing that austerity measures may have been stripping away the social safety networks needed to provide mental health care when it was most needed.

Experts also noted that the financial crisis and the policy response that followed highlighted the need for a critical re-assessment of economic crisis prevention, mitigation and recovery measures which would consider their impact on human rights.

Aldo Caliari, Director of the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project at the Center of Concern, noted that in the past four years the EU had spent some 4.5 trillion euros – 37% of the EU’s GDP - bailing out the financial industry, while government spending on social protection had been subjected to austerity measures.

“Financial policy and rule making tends to be shockingly removed from public scrutiny - not just from human rights groups, but any public scrutiny. All sectors of society should be able to input into such a process,” he said.

Caliari further said that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had set human rights standards for austerity programmes including the fact that they should be decided in a transparent, participatory and accountable manner. He added that a human rights approach to the financial crisis should not be confined to an analysis of impacts and burden allocation but should also look at austerity and financial regulation.

Participants pointed out that, while undercutting human rights, austerity measures have also failed to help restore the economy.

European countries implementing the hardest austerity measures have also suffered the greatest increase in unemployment. The Director of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Institute for Labour Studies, Raymond Torres, revealed that 8.1 million more people have been unemployed in the EU since the beginning of the crisis, adding that austerity was strongly linked to that statistic.

“In spite of the bailout, the financial system still does not support the real economy nor has it been reformed. Sectors of the economy that did not need fixing have been targeted and thus, 19 of the 27 EU countries reduced labour rights and social welfare expenditure,” he said. “This did not produce the intended results of increasing employment by creating hiring and working incentives. Instead, countries implementing the most reforms also had more layoffs.”

He called for a shift in macro-economic policies including the reform of the financial system and emergency social safety measures with guarantees for youth employment and education.

Mariama Williams, Senior Research Fellow at the Global Governance for Development Programme of the South Centre, examined the impacts on women of the financial crunch. She noted that the crisis and austerity measures had exacerbated existing structural inequalities.

For example, she observed that “Research by the ILO shows that women during the economic crisis are ‘more likely to be affected by loss of employment or cope with increasing insecurity’” and “women also dominate in public sector employment and hence are the group most likely to be affected by reductions in public sector expenditure.” Williams also stressed that women were more often caretakers, more responsible for food security, and more reliant upon remittances thus more likely to be affected by cuts to social welfare programmes.

This event is part of a series of initiatives that the UN Human Rights Office is undertaking to examine the human rights impacts of the financial crisis and austerity that will include an expert group meeting on 24-25 April in New York.

22 April 2013

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