Is the current budget cutting frenzy at state and federal levels compatible with human rights obligations? It is not, concludes our analysis of the impact of budget cuts in Vermont, yet the new governor’s proposals continue to neglect people’s fundamental needs. Now we are joined by advocates in the UK protesting drastic budget cuts there, so-called austerity measures. The British newspaper, The Guardian, has published the following article, which is relevant to current U.S. debates without much translation.
Austerity opposition needs a coherent narrative. Human rights provides one
Talk of ‘unfairness’ fails us when faced with cuts on this scale
Alice Donald, Tuesday 25, January 2011
Does austerity threaten our human rights? The question may seem surprising, since human rights are largely absent from political debate about whether, or how, austerity should be pursued. The coalition is keener to use (and misuse) terms such as fair and progressive to describe its assault on public services and people that depend on them – and the opposition throws the same language back again.
Manifestly, we are not "all in this together". The 200,000 children who are predicted to fall into poverty thanks to the coalition’s actions should not be "in this" at all. Faced with the scale and speed of the cuts, the language of fairness – elastic and essentially subjective – fails us. An alternative is needed that offers both greater precision and a sharper ethical edge. Human rights offer that alternative.
Not surprisingly, the coalition is having none of it. Justice minister Lord McNally told the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights that it would be "very dangerous territory" if spending decisions were tested "against a very vague concept of the human rights in any one particular area". His observation that departments would nevertheless "keep an eye on anything that would look like a flagrant disregard of human rights" is hardly reassuring.
McNally rightly argued that there is no magic level of departmental spending below which human rights are automatically breached, and that spending cuts that remove authoritarian measures might be beneficial. But he is not justified in suggesting that human rights are irrelevant – less still dangerous – to the austerity debate.
The government has specific and binding obligations under domestic and international human rights law and it is against these standards, and not a "vague concept" of human rights, that its actions should be scrutinised.
The UK has ratified the international covenant protecting economic and social rights. Among its 31 articles are the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing and the right to social security. While governments have discretion about how they put socio-economic rights into practice, there are certain things they must and must not do. The scope of the protected rights and the obligations they confer are decided by the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the covenant for the United Nations.
For example, governments must deploy "maximum available resources" towards realising economic and social rights. Crucially, this includes generating sufficient revenues to fund essential services, through taxation and also by regulating markets in ways that serve social goals. Governments must also avoid deliberate steps backwards in human rights protection; a decline in living and housing conditions cannot be planned without compelling justification. Nor must state actions cause or perpetuate discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights. Even when resources are severely constrained, the most vulnerable members of society must be protected. In short, governments cannot shrug off their human rights obligations on the grounds that times are tough.
Human rights are also pertinent to the process by which spending decisions are made. The rights to information, participation and due process, and the principles of transparency and accountability, are all enshrined in human rights law.
Since socio-economic rights are not part of domestic law – and are unlikely to be so any time soon – they lack the legal bite of the civil and political rights enshrined in the European convention on human rights and incorporated through the Human Rights Act. Individuals cannot enforce their right to health or housing in the courts as they can their right to privacy or their right not to be tortured.
Yet the government’s obligations remain real and binding – and fundamental to the protection of human dignity. The "freedom from fear and want" aspired to in the UN universal declaration of human rights eloquently conveys the indivisibility of all human rights – civil and political and socio-economic – and the reality that people who are hungry or homeless are denied the right to be active citizens. This is a language that can resonate in the political as well as the legal sphere.
Human rights provide a coherent, transparent and internationally agreed framework with which to identify – and hold government to account for – the cumulative impact of austerity. For example, how will the projected removal of £9bn in benefits from people with disabilities affect the right to independent living enshrined in the UN disability convention? Leading barristers have already identified that allowing universities to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year breaches human rights law, being both discriminatory and retrogressive.
Laying claim to socially and legally guaranteed entitlements permits us to characterise poverty as a structural injustice and not, as one American activist puts it, some kind of morbid lifestyle choice. Under the banner of human rights, communities and civil society groups across the globe have built alliances to confront inequalities of power and challenge stereotypes of people experiencing poverty as fraudulent, feckless or undeserving.
Closer to home, the Human Rights Act contains protections that could help resist the impact of austerity on the vulnerable and marginalised. Destitution that results from deliberate state action might constitute inhuman or degrading treatment. Compulsory unpaid work in exchange for benefits might be hard to justify under human rights law, as might reductions in social care packages that result in a significant loss of dignity and autonomy for those dependent upon them.
As austerity starts to bite, we are in urgent need of a coherent narrative in response – one that cements social solidarity and has more to say than "don’t cut my service". Human rights can help construct such a narrative and endow it with moral, legal and rhetorical force.