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Fighting austerity: why we need to talk about human rights

Fighting austerity: why we need to talk about human rights

Since 1945, the welfare state has protected people in the UK from falling below an essential threshold of decency due to age, infirmity or circumstances beyond their control. Austerity and social security reforms are tearing holes in that safety net, causing despair and humiliation for those who fall through - or who live in perpetual fear of doing so. Those paying the price include children, people with disabilities, the chronically sick, single-parent families, jobless people, and others on perilously low incomes who are demonised and derided for clinging to the tatters of the social safety net.

The Conservative aspiration is for permanent austerity, a leaner and more affordable state. Labour has scarcely begun to expound an alternative vision. Socialism having been removed from the lexicon of mainstream political discourse, critics of austerity have reached for the language of fairness, equality and social justice. This blog proposes to add that armoury the language of human rights.

At first blush, this might seem politically unwise. Aren’t human rights irredeemably unpopular, toxic things associated with prisoners, terrorists and other undeserving and/or litigious types? Don’t they signal interference by meddling UN monitors or judges (worse still, foreign ones) in the tough decisions that democratically-elected politicians must make in straitened economic times?   

Coalition ministers certainly think so. Witness their contemptuous dismissal of the alarm raised about poverty in the UK by three UN special rapporteurs on the right to adequate housing, the right to food, and extreme poverty. The rapporteurs are independent experts with mandates to report and advise the UN’s inter-governmental Human Rights Council on specific human rights matters. Each has expressed concern about the cumulative impact of austerity and social security reform on people’s ability to feed and house themselves, especially those that are most reliant on public services and social protection.

The human rights treaty invoked by the rapporteurs was the International Covenant on Economic. Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by the UK in 1974.  Among its 31 articles are the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing and housing; the right to social security; and the right to work. 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 specific obligations they create are decided by the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the covenant for the UN.

For example, governments must deploy ‘maximum available resources’ towards guaranteeing economic and social rights. Crucially, this includes generating sufficient revenues to fund essential services and social protection, through taxation and by regulating financial 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 – or simply allowed to happen - without compelling justification and without mitigating the effects on the poorest in society. Governments have a ‘minimum core obligation’ to ensure the satisfaction of, at least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights to everyone at all times. Nor must state actions cause or perpetuate discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights. Even when resources are severely constrained, ‘vulnerable’ members of society must be protected. In short, governments cannot jettison their human rights obligations on the grounds that times are hard.

Socio-economic rights are not part of domestic law and there is little prospect of their becoming so. Individuals cannot enforce their right to food or housing in the courts as they can their right to privacy or their right not to be tortured under the European Convention on Human Rights, which is incorporated through the Human Rights Act (HRA).

The HRA has yielded some victories in the courts, such as the High Court ruling that emergency legislation which sought retrospectively to correct flaws in its welfare-to-work scheme (forcing claimants into unpaid work experience schemes without properly informing them about the dire sanctions for refusing) breached the right to a fair trial. Yet such victories are rare, and equality legislation has proved only slightly more successful to challenging through the courts the impact of austerity on particular groups or services

Without abandoning legal strategies, human rights must also become integrated into political responses to austerity. Such efforts are gathering pace. A recent report by Just Fair found that the UK is in breach of its international legal obligations in respect of the right to food. It cites evidence about steep increases in levels of malnutrition, hunger and food bank usage caused by, among other things, social security reform, delays and sanctions, and the government’s failure to recognise or mitigate the growing gap between wages, benefits and the prices of food and other essentials.

Another Just Fair report, principally authored by disability specialist Jane Young and released this week, focuses on the rights of people with disabilities. It examines not only the rights to work, social security, social protection and an adequate standard of living, but also the right to independent living enshrined in the UN disability convention, which the UK ratified in 2009. The report concludes that the raft of reforms to social security and protection – including the ‘bedroom tax’, the imminent closure of the Independent Living Fund, welfare-to-work policies and tightening eligibility criteria for social care – are sending disability rights into reverse, causing significant hardship and distress and breaching the UK’s international legal obligations.

Both these and future human rights-based analyses of government policy will be submitted to the UN expert bodies that monitor implementation with the relevant human rights treaties, in order to influence and inform their conclusions regarding UK compliance. This process, known as ‘shadow reporting’, offers a strategic pressure point for activists who wish to take domestic issues of poverty and social injustice onto an international stage.

As austerity bites, a coherent response is needed to the ideologically-driven crusade to shrink the state and official efforts to deny responsibility for the damage wrought in blighted and insecure lives. The response must have legal, moral and rhetorical force and must cement social solidarity as well as defending particular groups or services. The government's socio-economic obligations are real and binding – and fundamental to the protection of human dignity. Laying claim to legally-guaranteed entitlements - human rights - permits us to characterise poverty as a structural injustice and not the result of individual fecklessness.

Human rights are also integral to discussion about the kind of state we should seek to build from the rubble of the financial crisis and the catastrophic policy choices of recent years. Human rights have a strong positive dimension: they are concerned not only with preventing undue state interference with our freedoms but also with how the state should act protectively and preventively to ensure that no-one slips through the net. This is the ‘freedom from fear and want’ aspired to in the post-war Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Bringing human rights to bear on UK political debate is a long game; but then, if the Conservatives get their way, so is austerity.