Rights in Crisis

What began as a financial crisis is rapidly turning into a global human rights crisis.

Just as greater poverty and misery are threatening the realization of economic and social rights, the repression of growing social protest is threatening civil and political rights. A rising tide of xenophobia and discrimination is also already threatening the wellbeing of migrants and minorities. Yet despite the human rights dimensions of the crisis, government responses have largely failed to take their obligations in this regard into account. Austerity measures being implemented in countries such as Spain and Ireland are exacerbating the marginalization of vulnerable sectors rather than protecting their inherent human rights.

At the Center for Economic and Social Rights, we are working to ensure that human rights are not forgotten as governments meet to discuss what can be done. We call on governments and policy-makers to take into account their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights for immediate crisis responses and longer-term decisions about economic policy and economic governance.

Challenging complacency about the impacts of the crisis

A human rights approach challenges complacency over the terrible consequences of the economic crisis on human lives and human dignity. Many organizations are estimating how many millions of people will lose their homes, their livelihoods, their incomes, their health and education. The World Bank, for example, estimated that up to 400,000 children would die in 2009 as a result of the crisis.

But these terrible consequences of the crisis often are accepted as inevitable, as if there is nothing that we can do about them. A human rights approach challenges this complacency - it is not inevitable, and nor is it acceptable to accept these losses to human life and dignity. We have to reorder our priorities and put people first. Indeed governments have obligations under human rights conventions to prioritize the fulfillment of "minimum essential levels" of economic and social rights, to guard against any discrimination and to target the most vulnerable. These obligations are not derogable - they become even more essential in times of crisis. It is not acceptable that governments can allocate billions of dollars for banking bailouts, yet make few resources available to prevent as many as 400,000 children from dying during the crisis.

Incorporating human rights into responses to the crisis

Human rights must be central to our understanding of the impacts and consequences of the crisis, but also the causes of the crisis. This understanding helps to frame choices of policy responses in ways that address human rights concerns:

  • Consequences of the Crisis - the need for a human rights impact assessment: The real consequences and the greatest burden of the impacts has fallen on the poorest and most marginalized communities and the realization of their human rights. The rights to housing, work, food, water, education, health, and even the right to life are all being threatened, yet states' responses so far do not appear to be guided by the need to avoid retrogression and violations of these rights.
  • Causes of the Crisis - the need for a human rights analysis: A human rights analysis requires us to take a step back and analyze the deeper, structural causes of the crisis. This includes, for example, understanding the role of the international community's and international financial institutions' actions and failures to act that contributed to the crisis. Examples include the failure of states to regulate in the public interest and the failure of states to address unequal development, rising inequalities, stagnating wages, where these amount to failures to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.
  • Choices of policy responses - the need for a human rights approach: In the short term, the choice of responses must prioritize the people - rather than the banks and businesses - that are most affected. In the long term, it means addressing the structural causes and abuses of power that have caused the crisis, redefining the principles that underlie the global economy to ensure the capacity of governments (and non-state actors) to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people.