Socio-Economic Rights in (Times of) Crisis

By Bárbara Matias
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Socio-economic rights rarely make headlines and many human rights violations remain invisible. This is worrying at a time when socio-economic rights are under great pressure and at the same time are more important than ever. With threats ranging from global financial crises to local water crises, and economic inequalities to rising xenophobic rhetoric, the human rights discourse has become ever so valuable, yet its potential remains unrealized.

In light of this, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights together with the Law School’s Human Rights Institute hosted an event on March 29th 2017 to discuss Socio-Economic Rights in (Times of) Crisis. Chaired by Professor Inga Winkler, the event included renowned panelists that presented an analysis of the potential and limitations of human rights, particular in times of increasing fiscal insecurity around the globe. They included Aoife Nolan, Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham and Hauser Senior Global Fellow at NYU, Nicholas Lusiani, Director of the Human Rights in Economic Policy Program at the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and Madison Condon, Post-Doctoral Research Scientist at the Columbia Water Center of the Earth Institute.

In the context of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the panelists discussed how human rights did not form part of national and supranational responses to the crisis. Nolan offered four reasons for this: the traditionally state-centric nature of the human rights framework, which resulted in a failure  to engage and constrain non-state actors with key roles in responding to the crisis; human rights law scholarship’s preoccupation with courts and judicial processes; gaps in the international socio-economic rights framework which rendered it challenging to evaluate socio-economic policies in terms of human rights and States’ respective obligations; and finally the prevailing economic paradigm which had promoted fiscal austerity over other more potentially ‘human rights-friendly’ models.

There is great resistance to a full acknowledgement of economic and social rights. Lusiani gave the example of austerity in Europe, where political will and markets became weaker, which led to cutting of many socioeconomic rights and resort to privatizations of services, as well as also contributing to the rise of populist politics. In fact, the panelist even affirmed that if there had been political will to implement policies such as combatting illegal tax evasion, then austerity measures could have been avoided by expanding the pot of available resources.  Yet, governments have a tendency to slash budgets rather than step back to evaluate how they can expand the budget, or redistribute funds to meet their human rights obligations.  Some of the lessons gleaned from responses in Europe include the need for advocates to better understand and engage with macro-economic policy from a rights-based perspective and the importance of infusing participation and democratic approaches into local and supranational policy.

Turning the discussion to current crises in the US and illustrating how these broad economic policy trends directly impact communities, Condon discussed how the right to water is being continuously violated in the US, and how international advocates and the human rights community can do better. Communities across the U.S. have witnessed how a local inability to maintain infrastructure (which results from a changing economy). This dovetails with a loss of federal and state support, rendering access to clean and affordable water untenable in towns in Texas, Puerto Rico, Michigan, and others.  These challenges are compounded by privatization of water services, as well as environmental pollution by large companies with means to skirt government scrutiny.

One of the key contemporary challenges noted by all panelists is the successful inclusion of human rights language in policy-making. Panelists discussed how core human rights principles can strengthen local, national, and supranational responses to fiscal challenges and crises, focusing on the importance of transparency, non-discrimination, participation, and the importance of addressing concerns like water and education as rights that governments must fulfill.  Yet, they also noted that the international agenda is a terrain of contestation, and human rights advocates must act strategically. A revival of human rights and accountability is needed to safeguard the dignity of all people, especially in times of crises.

Bárbara Matias is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.  Her research interests include refugee rights, forced displacement, and human rights affairs in the context of the European Union.