Economic policy: cash-rich, rights-poor?

07 May 2014

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Despite the human rights dimensions of the global economic crisis that began in 2008, little attention has been given to the extent to which human rights should guide policy responses at the national or international level. In fact, little progress has been made in addressing the gap between international human rights law standards and the real consequences of economic, fiscal, and social policy.

As an antidote, The Oxford Martin School Human Rights for Future Generations programme and the law faculty of Oxford University have responded with a new book, 'Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in International Law: Contemporary Issues and Challenges'. Some of the contributors to this book examined the impact of the successive waves of financial and economic crisis on economic and social rights. The conclusion? That the crisis is an historic opportunity to reshape the discourse of the role of the state in the economy.

As Ignacio Saiz (Center for Economic and Social Rights, New York) noted, human rights have barely figured in the diagnoses or prescriptions proposed by the international community. The financial assistance conditions imposed by the European Union on Greece, Portugal, and Spain are cases in point. In order to receive credits to avoid national bankruptcy and to be able to remain within the Eurozone, the government of Greece had to agree to make sizeable cuts in social spending and to dismiss large numbers of public servants as part of a comprehensive austerity programme.

The book examines the backdrop to austerity by scrutinizing its key contributing factors, including the over-reliance by states on using sovereign debt to fund the expansion of public services over the last two decades, and also considers the implications of austerity for international human rights law. Mary Dowell-Jones explains that part of the crisis stems from ‘the steady expansion of the state into public services that can be linked to human rights such as education, healthcare, and social welfare, coupled with the demands of an ageing population and the failure to fund existing services on a fully sustainable basis.’ It remains therefore important to investigate the dynamics of public debt, deficit financing, and socio-economic rights realisation, and to discuss the role and responsibilities of private financial institutions in the current austerity crisis.

It is imperative that human rights instruments are flexible in order to react efficiently to ever-changing economic conditions and the opportunities and demands that emerge. This is not to sacrifice core human rights to economic expediency, but rather to advocate a pragmatic approach to human rights treaties which is responsive to its changing context.

As the world debates the pros and cons of Thomas Picketty’s examination of ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, it seems an appropriate time to look at how current and future economic pressures affect fundamental human rights. This book is a start to that debate.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in International Law: Contemporary Issues and Challenges is published by Oxford University Press. The book's themes will be debated in a panel discussion at the Geneva Academy on 14 May, where speakers will include Prof Dzidek Kedzia, Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Dr Gilles Giacca; Sally-Anne Way, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); Dr Mary Dowell-Jones, University of New South Wales.

Dr Gilles Giacca is former co-ordinator of the Oxford Martin School's programme on Human Rights for Future Generations.