With only five seats in a Parliament of 350 Members, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV-EAJ) is playing a crucial role in Spanish politics.
In a hung parliament, PP’s conservative government can only rely on its 134 MPs and two more that tend to be loyal. About 40 seats short, the government has to negotiate each legislative initiative with the opposition, where two parties stand out as most likely allies in tumultuous waters: the 32 MPs of the central-liberal Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) and the mentioned five from PNV-EAJ. After some political juggling, their support can be enough most of the time.
However, while Ciudadanos is comfortable with PP’s economic policies and anti-devolution Jacobinism, ideology does not explain the PNV-EAJ’s position. PNV-EAJ is closer to the social-democratic PSOE (allegedly closer than PSOE leaders towards each other), and in fact, they share power in the Basque government, in the three Basque provincial governments and in many local councils, including the three main cities.
Even Podemos (“We can”), which is supposed to be to the left of everybody else, included in its Ikea-style 2016 manifesto the expansion of the Basque welfare regime to the rest of Spain, and the recognition of the right to self-determination of the Basque Country and Catalonia, all of which suggests that there could be room for mutual understanding with them too.
But the PNV-EAJ has made a different choice. In essence, Mr Rajoy needs the moderate Basque nationalists to remain in power, and the Basque nationalists know it all too well. After weeks of negotiations, PNV-EAJ has just confirmed it will support the approval of the Spanish budget. Less than one month ago, with its abstention PP facilitated the approval of the Basque government’s budget in the Basque parliament.
Considering the ideological mismatch and the significant disagreement about the very idea of nationhood, how come Basque nationalists seem willing to reach agreements in Madrid with a conservative and unionist party haunted by corruption scandals? Continue reading →
La hemeroteca estos días nos ha dejado tres historias distintas pero que tienen algo en común.
Como pidieron políticos y varias administraciones, la semana pasada la Fiscalía abrió diligencias que obligaron a inmovilizar el autobús con el que Hazte Oír lanzaba mensajes tránsfobos por las calles de varias ciudades españolas. Al parecer, existía un riesgo de “alteración de la paz pública (y) de creación de un sentimiento de inseguridad o temor” entre personas transexuales, especialmente menores.
En Las Palmas de Gran Canaria un drag queen se vistió de virgen y de jesucristo para ganar un concurso durante el carnaval. El show fue puesto en conocimiento de la Fiscalía por si pudiera constituir un “delito contra los sentimientos religiosos”. El sujeto en cuestión aseguró públicamente que él no quería ofender a nadie. Resulta que la intención de ofender es precisamente uno de los elementos indispensables de este curioso tipo delictivo, así que nunca sabremos si estas explicaciones son genuinas o son por si las moscas.
EITB ha emitido un programa humorístico (¡!) en el que la farándula euskaldun se deshace en estereotipos sobre “los españoles”, que son unos chonis, machistas, corruptos, ignorantes, fachas y muy-muy paletos. No sé cuál es el escándalo, la verdad, porque los vascos ya lo sabíamos: lo absorbimos acríticamente primero de los payasos de la tele, luego en la ikastola, y más tarde en la herriko taberna. Todo el mundo sabe que la facilitad de influir sobre un vasco es tan sólo comparable con la de corromper a un español. En cualquier caso, Ciudadanos y UPN ya han anunciado que van a llevar el tema a los tribunales porque el programa “incita al odio”. Han recordado que quien ríe el último, ríe mejor, y supuestamente el último en reír tiene que ser un juez.
The UK needs clear targets to reduce and eventually put an end to child poverty.
This is the purpose of a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Dan Jarvis MP. The Bill places the duty on the government to set targets to limit both absolute and relative child poverty, to lay out a clear strategy, and to report to Parliament on progress made to meet the targets. The Bill intends to restore the benchmarks of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which were removed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.
According to the Department of Work and Pensions, the proportion of children in absolute low income (before housing costs) was 17% in 2014/15, substantially more than the 5% target of the Bill being discussed in Parliament. Furthermore, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted a 3-point rise in absolute child poverty between 2016 and 2020 as a result of planned tax and benefit reforms. Continue reading →
El populismo xenófobo lleva años acechándonos. Ya se ha adueñado de Estados Unidos y de Hungría, apretó a Austria, y ahora amenaza en Francia, Holanda y Alemania. España por ahora parece vacunada contra este mal, y muchos se preguntan por qué.
Suelen darse varios argumentos para explicar por qué en España no triunfa (todavía) el populismo xenófobo: el recuerdo de la dictadura franquista, la falta de liderazgo y las desavenencias internas dentro de la extrema derecha, su integración en un sector del Partido Popular, la pluralidad de sentimientos de pertenencia nacional en distintos puntos del Estado, la canalización del descontento popular a través de Podemos y de otras plataformas, etc.
Todos estos argumentos, y seguramente algunos otros más (¿el papel de los medios de comunicación?), parecen relevantes. Posiblemente sea cierto que la situación concreta de España se explique a la luz de varios factores, pero sería bueno afinar el análisis intentando concretar el peso relativo de cada uno de ellos. El manido Spain is different no es suficiente. Continue reading →
This article was first published in the blog of The Equality Trust
The UK is one of the most unequal societies in Europe. Even though decreasing unemployment and low inflation have reduced income inequality for now, unfair taxes, stagnant incomes and unaffordable housing risk enlarging the wealth gap.
It is not only about raw data. Inequality is widely perceived as a growing problem in society. According to the 2016 British Social Survey, more than 76% of the people believe there is a wide divide between social classes.
Abundant empirical research shows how bad inequality can be for general economic stability, criminality, individual self-esteem, mental health, sense of trust and civic participation.
Many of these issues are closely connected to human rights.
Equality is of paramount importance for individual freedom and meaningful choice in a free society, and growing inequality within a country suggests that its government is not doing everything in its power to guarantee an adequate standard of living for all.
Public authorities must safeguard not only formal equality but also substantive equality. They must protect equality in the law, but also adopt the necessary policies to address the underlying causes that fuel economic and social disparities.
However, the UN body that monitors states’ compliance with this treaty concluded in its 2016 report that the Government has not done everything within its power regarding non-discrimination.
Specifically, the UN asked the Government to bring the Equality Act 2010 to life in full.
We need evidence-based policies to reduce inequality and support human rights, and we need such policies to be adopted at all levels of government. Section 1 of the Equality Act provides this by calling on public authorities to aim at the reduction of the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage.
Section 1 should be part of the Prime Minister’s vision of a “shared society”. The Government failed to implement this socio-economic duty in 2010, but it is not too late. There is a perfect opportunity to announce the commencement of section 1 in the green paper on social justice, expected in February.
Both in principle and in practical terms, equality matters to human rights, and human rights matter to equality.
We in Just Fair are excited to work together with The Equality Trust and others advocating the implementation of section 1 of the Equality Act.
Koldo Casla is Policy, Research and Training Officer at Just Fair, which monitors and advocates economic and social rights in the UK. Koldo tweets as @koldo_casla, and you can follow Just Fair at @JustFairUK.
After nearly two years of evidence gathering and interaction with civil society and government officials, last June the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued its Concluding Observations on the extent to which UK authorities have been complying with international law on these rights.
To the government’s sorrow, the picture was bleak, but the report also included 60 very specific recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends making economic and social rights enforceable in court, just like civil and political rights are, without regressive changes to the Human Rights Act 1998. Authorities must adopt measures to address the deficit of affordable housing, particularly rental housing. The UK should review its fiscal policy to make sure that taxes provide the necessary resources to satisfy economic and social rights. The government must also enact Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that authorities have socio-economic equality in due regard when designing and implementing their policies. Decisive measures must be taken to eliminate the gender pay gap, and reduce the use of temporary and precarious forms of employment, such as “zero hour contracts”. The Committee also expressed serious worries about the negative impact of welfare reforms introduced since 2012, in particular benefit cuts and freezes, the use of sanctions, and the disconnect between state benefits and costs of living.
These findings can only be explained if one factors austerity into the equation. The Committee expressed serious concerns about “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”. The Committee had seen the link between austerity and human rights retrogression before in the Czech Republic (2014), Slovenia (2014), Romania (2014), Portugal (2014) and Spain (2012). The connection had also been noted by the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe (2013).
2016 was a busy year for the UK government. The Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations in June, and so did the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October. In September, the UN made public a joint letter sent to the UK government some months earlier by the Special Rapporteurs on Housing, on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on Extreme Poverty, and on the Right to Food, with specific questions about the compatibility of welfare reforms with international human rights obligations of the UK, and the report of the inquiry of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was published in October. This Committee stressed a series of concerns about the negative impact of austerity-led welfare reforms on the rights of people with disabilities.
UN human rights oversight does not end here. Every five years or so, countries are grilled for three hours in the UN Human Rights Council in what is known as the “Universal Periodic Review”. Next turn for the UK will be May 2017. We don’t know what sort of recommendations the UK will receive from other countries, but many organisations and coalitions, including Just Fair, have already made some suggestions. The joint report produced by the British Institute of Human Rights gathered information from 175 organisations, including Just Fair.
Ok, so the UN has spoken categorically, and more is surely coming in mid-2017. But what now?
The UK has voluntarily assumed the commitment to bring to live the rights proclaimed in international treaties. International human rights mechanisms provide advocacy opportunities, but they are only as effective as civil society makes them to be. Organisations and society at large must hold the government to account and demand policies that fulfil the human rights promise.
As soon as she entered into office, PM Theresa May promised that her government would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” For now, however, apart from some minimal announcements in the Autumn statement in November, the government has not changed course from the austerity path initiated by Cameron and Osborne. The government has not reacted to the report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and in its response to the inquiry report of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the government ignored entirely the criticism of the deliberate and unjustified retrogressive measures of recent years.
Even in turbulent waters, there is room for good news. Following the lead of Scotland (since 2012) and Wales (since 2015), a bill is currently being discussed in Westminster Parliament that would create a new duty to prevent homelessness for all eligible applicants threatened with homelessness in England, which would stop councils turning non-vulnerable single people away without any assistance at all. In November, the Supreme Court ruled on the human rights compliance of the so-called “bedroom tax” (or “spare room subsidy”), which essentially means the lowering of housing benefit for those living in social housing that is deemed to have spare bedrooms. The Court ruled that disabled adults who cannot share a room with another person should not have their spare room subsidy removed, and also that treating children and adults differently in this regard would breach Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on private and family life, and non-discrimination. The Scottish government is considering legalising the right to food in accordance with international human rights standards, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new socioeconomic equality duty on public authorities in 2017.
Brexit has taken the UK to an unchartered territory. We don’t know when and how the UK will leave the European Union, and we don’t know the effect that this may have for human rights in general, and economic and social rights in particular. But it is fair to say that the UK is not heading out in order to protect and promote economic and social rights better. At times of enormous political and social uncertainty, in Just Fair we will continue using the international human rights machinery in defence of human rights for all.
Together, these two treaties constitute the core of the international system that protects human rights. Both treaties entered into force a decade later in 1976, only a few weeks apart. And both of them have received approximately the same number of ratifications to this day: 168 for the ICCPR and 164 for the ICESCR. Like all other European countries, the UK is a party to both of them.
Degrees of separation
But there are significant differences between these two treaties. The intention of those who drafted them was to flesh out the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by making the protection of rights legally binding for states. But considering that the 1948 Universal Declaration contained civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights in a single text, by creating two separate documents it was clear that the drafters wanted to introduce differences between these rights.
While all this happened during the political context of the Cold War, this was not the main reason why different types of human rights were treated differently. Rather, the decision had to do with states’ general preference for a weaker duty to protect their citizens’ economic, social and cultural rights. Countries were willing to proclaim these rights as long as this proclamation did not entail strong accountability mechanisms.
The second difference between the two treaties refers to the clarity and burden of words. Article 2(1) of the ICCPR talks about states’ obligations “to respect and to ensure [civil and political rights] without distinction of any kind”. Yet the same article in the ICESCR uses much more cryptic language about how the compliance of states to the treaty on economic, social and cultural rights will be monitored. It states:
Each state party to the present covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the rights recognised in the present covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
It’s difficult to assess compliance if rights are meant to be “achieved progressively”, or to decide the “appropriateness” of the “means” authorities are making use of. And can we blame governments if they promise “to take steps”, but not just yet?
There are also differences in the ways states who violate these two sets of rights are held to account. When the ICCPR was adopted, it brought with it an independent monitoring body known as the Human Rights Committee.
This had three responsibilities: examining states’ abidance by the treaty approximately every five years; dealing with interstate complaints (although to date this has never been used); and receiving complaints from individuals who consider themselves to be victims of a violation of any of the political and civil rights contained in the ICCPR. A complaint can lead to detailed recommendations on the specific case which countries are expected to implement. To date, 115 countries have let their citizens complain to the UN like this, but the UK is not one of them.
But when it came to economic, social and cultural rights, the ICESCR did not contain anything similar, and this was only partly corrected in 1985 when the UN created a body to periodically assess the general level of enjoyment of these rights in those countries which have ratified the treaty.
All this means that there are three degrees of separation between the two sets of rights: different treaties that states could pick and choose from, different legal wording, and different accountability mechanisms.
An unfortunate hierarchy
Something similar happened in the European context. In 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights was set up with a relatively resourceful European Court of Human Rights devoted essentially to civil and political rights. Then, in 1961, the European Social Charter was established (and then revised in 1996). This is monitored by the much weaker European Committee of Social Rights.
The impact of this hierarchy in which civil and political rights are given more weight than economic, social and cultural rights is visible at the domestic level, too. In the UK, for example, the very important Human Rights Act 1998 gives judges the means to apply the European Convention on Human Rights, but not the European Social Charter or the ICESCR, although the UK has ratified both treaties.
Half a century since the adoption of the two landmark human rights treaties, it is time to close the gap between human rights.
Independent human rights bodies, scholars and a growing number of practitioners have worked to define the meaning of economic, social and cultural rights and the contours of states’ obligations to uphold them.
Since 2013, individuals in 22 countries, ranging from Argentina to France and Mongolia, can also complain directly to the UN if their economic, social and cultural rights have been violated. This only applies to countries that have ratified the 2008 Optional Protocol to the ICESCR. Unfortunately, the UK is not one of them.
Yet, even in the UK, a minority of the judges in the Supreme Court has accepted that given their nature, some human rights treaties (although not the ICESCR for now) should be “directly enforceable in UK domestic law”, even without an act of parliament.
Half a century ago, human rights were internationalised with some degrees of separation. Luckily, we now have some tools that we lacked at that time – but we need to tell the government to make use of them.