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Assessing Austerity: Tools for preventing another Lost Decade for human rights

March 1, 2018

Ten years on from the global financial and economic crisis, fiscal discipline in the shape of austerity has become the new normal for governments in more than two-thirds of countries worldwide. CESR’s new briefing, Assessing Austerity, argues that another “lost decade” for human rights is impermissible and sets out a methodological framework for assessing and addressing the human rights impacts of fiscal consolidation.

Drastic austerity measures like severe public expenditure cuts, regressive tax shifts, and labor market and pension reforms have triggered devastating disinvestments in human rights in countries across the globe. Human rights of all types—from economic, social and cultural rights such as education, food, health and housing, to civil and political rights such as the right to life and free speech—have all been negatively affected. In the process, these unnecessary and unjustified policies have also aggravated disparities such as those in income, gender, race, age, disability and migration status.

Assessing Austerity: Monitoring the human rights impacts of fiscal consolidation draws on CESR’s ten years of analysis and advocacy around harmful austerity programs in Europe, Latin America and North Africa to outline practical guidance for policymakers, international institutions, civil society actors and others seeking to evaluate the human rights consequences of, and alternatives to, austerity.

The briefing draws on OPERA (Outcomes, Policy Efforts, Resources, Assessment), CESR’s adaptable rights-monitoring framework, to outline a methodology that can be employed to conduct effective Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs) of fiscal adjustment measures. It also demonstrates why a human rights assessment of austerity is at once necessary, feasible and ultimately quite valuable in advancing a suite of alternative policies that would prevent harmful forms of fiscal consolidation in the future. Those include tackling tax abuse, strengthening tax authorities, debt renegotiation and reallocation of unnecessary expenditures.

The publication of Assessing Austerity responds to the need for practical tools for monitoring the human rights impacts of economic reform measures, identified by the UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, who will likely be mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to develop guiding principles for States and other relevant parties to assess such measures from a human rights perspective. Preliminary aspects of these principles are outlined in a report being presented by the Independent Expert to the Council this week in Geneva, which draws extensively on CESR’s Assessing Austerity briefing submitted as part of the consultation process.

Assessing Austerity is also timed to mark the “Lost Decade” since the 2008 global financial crisis, a critical moment for reflection and action to counter the widespread economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) deprivations currently being enabled by austerity, and to advance actionable alternatives.

Over the past decade, CESR has not only led the way in analyzing austerity in different contexts, but also in holding governments accountable and advocating for alternatives that affirm human rights instead of abusing them.

In Brazil, we have exposed how a twenty-year public spending freeze is leading to a foreseeable spike in malnutrition and other human rights deteriorations. In Colombia and Peru, CESR has worked with partners to create a strategic road map for potential civil society actions aimed at achieving progressive tax and spending reforms in Andean nations facing fiscal constraints. In Egypt, we are working with civil society groups to track how austerity measures implemented since the 2011 revolution have led to soaring unemployment, escalating food prices and failing public services such as affordable housing, healthcare and education. And in Spain, we’re challenging the deadly impact of austerity-related health cuts on marginalized groups like migrants and women.

CESR’s pioneering work on austerity has promoted nationalregional and international human rights bodies’ close scrutiny of austerity measures and has also influenced global policy formulation by powerful international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. CESR’s arguments against the disconnect between austerity and the Sustainable Development Goals have also influenced debates on tackling inequality in international development forums.

As with prior work, Assessing Austerity aims to help expose the human costs of fiscal adjustment—a vital means of influencing the economic and fiscal debates that so profoundly affect people’s enjoyment of basic economic and social rights. It argues that, if carried out rigorously, independently and effectively, HRIA processes can help challenge outdated economic assumptions, restore public trust during fragile historical moments, and adjust economic policies to people’s human rights, rather than the other way around.

Assessing Austerity will be launched on Friday, March 2, 12 p.m. CET, at a panel discussion on “Assessing human rights impacts of economic reform policies” at the 37th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Niko Lusiani, Director of CESR’s Human Rights in Economic Policy Program, will participate in the side event with Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, UN Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, and other speakers.

Image: "Marea Blanca" protest by Adolfo Lujan/Flickr