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European rights chief warns of austerity's 'lost generation'

That young people represent the future may seem like a hackneyed platitude, but in an age when their human rights are under siege as a result of the economic crisis and the austerity measures imposed in its wake, it is deserving of renewed consideration. This is not lost on the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, who has warned that the continuing assault on young people's economic and social rights following the crisis may lead to a "lost generation" of Europeans, and serious consequences for social cohesion and political stability.

Drawing on the recently-published Council of Europe issue paper "Safeguarding Human Rights in Times of Economic Crisis", commissioned from CESR, Muiznieks issued a statement this week highlighting how young people have been one of the groups hardest hit by the economic crisis in Europe. Youth unemployment, described as "the most common pathology of many countries implementing austerity measures", is now twice as high as the overall average in the EU, with particularly hard-hit countries, such as Greece and Spain, showing youth unemployment levels of over 50 per cent. Unjust cuts to education, health and other public services are likewise prejudicing youth and older persons disproportionately. What's more, young people's right to participation in political life has also been eroded, both through opaque policymaking and a crackdown on dissent in many countries, leading many young people to lose faith in current structures of governance.  

The Commissioner calls for "a rights-based approach [to] replace the current neglect of young people in discussions about the crisis." Citing the recommendations of the recent issue paper, he argues that measures tackling youth and long-term unemployment should be given priority in labour policies and that any temptation to lower labour standards and social protection when employing young people must be resisted. He stresses the role of national human rights commissions and equality bodies as a channel through which state institutions can be made more responsive to the concerns and grievances of young people and others hit hardest by the crisis. The Commissioner also highlights how new and existing legal instruments can strengthen protection against age discrimination and safeguard the rights of all people across the life course.

The statement is a welcome follow up to the CESR-commissioned issue paper, which warns that cuts to social spending, regressive tax hikes and the weakening of labor protections in the face of the crisis are in many cases incompatible with international human right law, and are penalizing the most vulnerable sectors unfairly. Safeguarding Human Rights in Times of Economic Crisis also proposes a set of actionable recommendations for governments to align their economic recovery policies with their human rights commitments, for example through progressive tax reforms, the implementation of human rights and equality impact assessments, the provision of adequate social protection and ensuring access to justice.

The economic logic of austerity is increasingly being challenged, as continued waves of cutbacks fail to deliver meaningful improvements in national economies. Being mindful of the potential long-term consequences, Europe's decision-makers would do well to question the logic and legality of trampling on young people's human rights as well.