EnetEnglish.gr, 17:47 Wednesday 4 December 2013
Austerity has eroded human rights, Council of Europe study says
Human rights watchdog says governments 'have forgotten about their human rights obligations'
Governments must respect the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable, the need to ensure access to justice, and the right to equal treatment, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner Nils Muižnieks says
Austerity measures across Europe have undermined human rights in key areas, the continent's top human rights organisation said on Wednesday, in a report that says lending troikas in various countries – including Greece – have neglected human rights considerations in their austerity programmes.
"Many governments in Europe imposing austerity measures have forgotten about their human rights obligations, especially the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable, the need to ensure access to justice, and the right to equal treatment," said the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, at the launch of the research paper, entitled Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis.
"Regrettably, international lenders have also neglected to incorporate human rights considerations into many of their assistance programmes," Nils Muižnieks added.
Describing some of the conditions imposed on governments in return for assistance as "onerous", Muižnieks said they "have prevented governments from investing in essential social protection, health and education programmes".
"When the EU as a central actor in the crisis makes decisions about economic governance in member states and when the Troika sets conditions for rescue packages and loan agreements, the impact on human rights should be better taken into account," he added.
He said. "The economic crisis has had dire consequences on vulnerable groups, in particular on children and young persons. Youth unemployment in Europe has reached record levels, with millions of young people unemployed with scarred futures. Cuts in child and family benefits, health care and education have also added a strain on millions of families. An increasing number of children are dropping out of school to find employment and support their families, risking life-long setbacks in educational achievement, and providing the conditions for job insecurity coupled with the re-emergence of child labour and exploitation."
The Council of Europe represents 47 states. While it has limited power to change national policies, its best-known body is the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the European Convention on Human Rights. The council also enforces the European Social Charter, an international treaty ratified by 33 of the Council’s 47 members – including Greece in 1984 – that guarantees economic rights.
Examples of how human rights have been undermined in Greece according to the Council of Europe include:
1 Job rights Greece and other EU countries are now experiencing depression-level unemployment rates, following a dramatic spike in seasonally adjusted unemployment. As contractionary fiscal policies dampen growth prospects, long-term unemployment is becoming more entrenched, with long-lasting structural implications. In 2012 alone, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) found 13 countries in breach of their duty under Article 1(1) of the revised European Social Charter to pursue full employment policies. The study notes that over half of all young people are officially unemployed in Spain, Portugal and Greece, with little improvement expected until 2016
2 Wage rights A wayward economic recovery and the related weakening of worker protection can lead to work rights being threatened, including the right to fair pay, collective bargaining and health and safety rights. In Spain, for example, the minimum wage is below what the European Social Charter says is necessary to guarantee a decent standard of living. In Greece, the International Labour Organisation has found repeated and extensive interventions into free and voluntary collective bargaining and an “important deficit of social dialogue”
3 Social protection rights Setbacks in the labour market, cuts in social services and regressive tax measures have deepened poverty in Europe. In 2011, the percentage of people in the EU at risk of poverty or social exclusion reached 24.2%
4 Social security rights Under pressure from the increasing demand on social protection programmes due to spiralling unemployment, social security systems have been pushed to the limit. Some governments have opted to "reform" pension systems, increasing the vulnerability of older citizens. In Greece, for example, the European Committee of Social Rights observed that pension reform measures would “risk bringing about a large-scale pauperisation of a significant segment of the population”. It said the government had failed to conduct the minimum level of research and analysis on the effects of the austerity measures
5 Housing rights The right to housing has been compromised as a result of the economic crisis. The housing market crisis at the root of the financial and economic crises coupled with growing unemployment, induced a sharp increase in evictions as a result of non-payment of mortgages, foreclosures and home repossessions in many countries. Since 2007, homelessness has increased in 15 of the 21 countries monitored by national experts. The crisis has been identified as a key driver of expanding homelessness in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK. New groups of homeless have emerged, with homelessness spreading among migrants, young people, women and families
6 Food rights The right to food has been affected by austerity measures when governments have limited food subsidies without adequate safeguards to ensure access to the minimum essential levels. Reduction in the consumption of staple food was reported as the most frequent coping mechanism in central and eastern European countries. Food banks are experiencing record lines in the UK, for example, with cuts to the welfare system the most common reason given
7 Water rights Many people have faced setbacks in their right to water as a result of austerity. As a condition for international assistance from the EC, ECB and IMF, new fees for domestic water use have been introduced in Ireland, for example. Greece has also been told to privatise its publicly owned water monopolies. Plans to privatise public water utilities have been part and parcel of several austerity packages which may threaten the affordability of water and the effective accountability of water suppliers
8 Education rights The right to education has suffered setbacks, primarily due to reductions in education budgets. Investment in education fell in one third of OECD countries between 2009 and 2010 as a result of the economic crisis. Spain cut its education budget by 21.4% between 2011 and 2012, for example, and Estonia by 10% between 2008 and 2009. Cuts in education subsidies and scholarships, school teachers’ salaries and budgeting for schools affect the quality, accessibility and affordability of education and can also result in early school dropouts with long-term effects on the children concerned
9 Health rights Cuts in health-related spending have affected the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. In Greece, the EC, ECB and IMF have demanded that public spending on health should not exceed 6% of GDP, with a potentially long-term impact on public health. Out-of-pocket fees have increased in many countries despite evidence that the introduction of health co-payment systems is associated with decreased use of health services and worsening health outcomes for both high-risk and low-income patients. Weakened mental health, substance abuse and suicide have been linked with austerity measures. Recent improvements in life expectancies across the region are being compromised due to the crisis
10 Civil and political rights The rights to participate in public affairs and to transparency through the provision of timely, accessible and relevant information have suffered as a result of the crisis. Many governments have speedily drawn up austerity policies side-stepping regular channels of participation and social dialogue on the pretext of a national financial emergency. The executive has often been allotted greater margins of authority to adopt austerity measures without consultation with the legislature, challenging accepted democratic checks and balances. National-level democratic decision making is further thwarted by the fact that deficit caps and other key fiscal rules made at the European intergovernmental level determine spending levels of many national governments, with with little to no participation from those suffering the consequences of cutbacks. The severity of austerity measures alongside the frequent failure to consult with the people affected has provoked large-scale demonstrations especially in Spain, Portugal and Greece