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Spain answers to UN for rights impacts of crisis response

Amidst the deep economic crisis in which it currently finds itself, the Spanish state has an important date with the United Nations on May 7 and 8 at which it must explain the human rights repercussions of its social and economic policies. When Spain appears before the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) for the first time in eight years it will be obliged to respond to the international community for its handling of the crisis and for the severe austerity measures adopted to confront it, which are putting the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights at risk.

The Committee is one of the international system’s mechanisms for defending and guaranteeing human rights. Lamentably, these are often unknown to much of society. The mission of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is to supervise the application of provisions in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by states that have ratified it. This international treaty – ratified by Spain in 1977 – includes binding legal obligations that states must respect, protect and fulfill with regard to the rights to decent work, social security and protection, protection of the family, and an adequate standard of living, along with the rights to housing, education, health, culture and rights at work. The Committee evaluates the degree of compliance with the Covenant, not only in terms of the national legal framework, but also with regard to the translation of these norms into public policies, the resources deployed and the corresponding impact of government action on the full enjoyment of these human rights.

Since the last time Spain appeared before the Committee in 2004, the situation of economic and social rights in the country has suffered a series of reverses, with the economic crisis as a backdrop: unemployment has reached historic levels, affecting almost 24 per cent of the population and half of young people under 25; child poverty is besieging one in four boys and girls; mortgage repossessions have multiplied, resulting in thousands of families losing their homes, and cutbacks are exacting a heavy toll on health and education.

For its part, civil society has produced a number of alternative reports providing evidence of this situation. One particularly strong example is the Parallel Report delivered by a coalition of 19 Spanish NGOs. Some of the organizations which participated in this coalition presented their conclusions and recommendations to the ESCR Committee in Geneva on May 7, in advance of Spain’s examination.

The conclusions of this report point to an extremely worrying situation, confirming the pernicious effects on economic and social rights of the austerity measures adopted by Spain to confront the economic and financial crisis. Similarly, it has become clear that inequality in the distribution of resources in Spain, which in turn leads to differences in and threats to these rights according to geographic location, has increased, while there is a marked absence of specific measures to protect the most vulnerable populations (women, immigrants, persons with disabilities, the Gitano community and children). The report also provides evidence of deficient accountability of the Spanish state and the absence of effective mechanisms to promote real and effective civil society participation in economic and social matters.

In accordance with Article 2 of ICESCR, Spain committed to adopt measures “to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means”. It can be affirmed, as indeed it was by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillar at the opening of the 48th session of the Committee, that “at a time of dwindling resources and shrinking national budgets, we must insist that such obligations be carried out. (The) Committee has a vital role to play both in discouraging the adoption of retrogressive measures that may negatively impact on people’s  social rights, and in helping to find viable responses to the crises in respect of international human rights law.”

Spain faces a crucial examination to determine whether it is complying with the human rights obligations by which it is bound; it must give account of its progress, or deterioration, in the field of ESC rights.

For more information, see the Joint Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, presented by the Center for Economic and Social Rights and 18 other Spanish civil society organizations in May 2012.  The sessions will be broadcast on the internet at: