November 22, 2017
By Mihir Mankad
In Europe, millions are still reeling from the effects of austerity policies imposed by governments in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In this contentious political and economic climate, European national human rights institutions (NHRIs) are searching for more effective ways to promote and protect economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR).
An issue paper commissioned from CESR by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks highlighted the key role these bodies play in protecting ESC rights in the context of economic crisis. The document called for states to strengthen the ability of NHRIs to respond to ESCR complaints and provide advice on human rights-centered decision making on social and economic measures.
As part of a broader effort to strengthen NHRI capacity and networks managed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), CESR is partnering with DIHR, the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), to increase the skills and competencies of NHRIs in handling ESCR complaints and monitoring socioeconomic policies.
My colleague, Allison Corkery, and I recently conducted a workshop on ESCR in Riga, Latvia to help NHRIs from across Europe attain these competencies. Over five days we covered subjects as diverse as the potential for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to realize ESCR to the importance of examining government budgets for human rights. I found the workshop provided two important takeaways:
Scaling up skills for human rights measurement is crucial
The importance of measurement – and the need to build and improve skills around it – cannot be underestimated. The systemic nature of many ECSR deprivations requires interrogating the impacts of socioeconomic policies and the budgets that often drive those deprivations. Savvy around socioeconomic data and government resources plays a huge role in understanding how deprivations occur and what problematic policies enable them.
Therefore, having the capacity to use tools like human rights indicators, benchmarks, and statistical and budgetary data is critical to holding governments accountable for their ESCR obligations.
Unlike other parts of the world, Europe is rich in socioeconomic data, which makes finding ESCR-related statistical information much easier. But having access to the appropriate data and using it effectively is another matter. For example, connecting the dots between tax policy data and human rights deprivations requires very particular critical skills. This was particularly instrumental for our hosts from the Latvian Ombudsman’s Office, who were able to use lessons from the workshop to help them assess the potential impacts of recent tax reforms on human rights in their country.
Strengthening the effectiveness and expertise of NHRIs may require generating partnerships between these and other civil society institutions either to acquire the desired expertise or to jointly implement activities. For example, colleagues from the German Institute for Human Rights pointed out how they have worked with academics and other specialists in the past when dealing with technical expertise outside their range or comfort zone.
Use limited resources strategically
Although the adjective “strategic” is criminally overused, NHRIs are indeed frequently resource-constrained and must take a thoughtful and considered approach to the multitude of issues they must address.
NHRIs are unique in that they are government-sanctioned bodies but have a mandate to operate independently. This positions them as a bridge between civil society organizations and the government. At the same time, they have very particular powers such as receiving complaints or demanding information from the government. These should be employed in sensible and effective ways.
Deciding on the appropriate global and national venues for claiming ESCR is crucial. The SDGs present a potentially significant opportunity for NHRIs to advance the ESCR agenda but many participants in Riga expressed uncertainty about their relevance in the European context. The SDGs face “competition” from many other regional socioeconomic commitments, such as the European Pillar of Social Rights, which is an agenda set forward by the European Commission to reinforce labor and social rights in Europe.
SDGs and the Social Pillar both provide concrete benchmarks for measuring concepts like adequacy and sufficiency, which are important for human rights evaluations. Ultimately, however, whether an NHRI engages with these regional or international initiatives comes down to a multitude of national and institutional considerations.
The DIHR project that generated the workshop is part of a global e-learning platform on ESCR which CESR has contributed to and it is open to the public as a self-guided course. It is also currently being rolled out for a limited number of participants alongside four regional workshops like the next one occurring in December in Abuja, Nigeria with the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI). Our hope is that the Abuja workshop implemented with NANHRI will highlight additional challenges and yield new insights specific to the African context, enriching the impact of this initiative to strengthen the effectiveness of NHRIs globally.