Human rights and the financial crisis in focus: some thoughts after a meeting in Vienna

20130701_100422Last Monday I took part in an “expert meeting on promoting a rights-based approach to financial regulation and economic recovery”. The meeting took place at the UN office in Vienna and it was co-hosted by the OHCHR and the Center of Concern, as part of the ongoing work of the OHCHR on the issue of human rights and the financial crisis (see further information here; I´ve been told that the statements and presentations will be available there soon). The meeting (find agenda here) gathered UN human rights experts (Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures), OHCHR representatives, experts from the financial sector, NHRIs, NGOs and academic experts. I attended the event on behalf of the Ombudsman of the Basque Country (Ararteko) to present our views about the impact of the economic crisis and austerity-led policies on the enjoyment of human rights in the Basque Country.

According to the 1978 Spanish Constitution (Article 54) and the 1979 Basque Statute of Autonomy (Article 15), the Ombudsman of the Basque Country is defined as the High Commissioner of the Parliament of the Basque Country for the protection and promotion of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, which must be interpreted in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights law (Article 10.2 of the Constitution). Therefore, the mandate of the Basque Ombudsman is not only dealing with individual complaints (although this is definitely our main task from a resource perspective), but also constructing and defending a human rights approach to public policy and fostering human rights values and principles in the Basque society.

I believe the most productive ingredient of this meeting was that it brought together very different people and made them discuss the same topics, namely, the crisis, economic policies, financial regulation and human rights. Human rights people and financial regulatory services seldom talk to each other. It often seems they speak in different languages. To tell the truth, I don´t think we managed to break this sound barrier last Monday but at least we paid attention to what each other had to say, which is no mean feat.

I would summarise the main points of my intervention as follows.

The financial crisis in itself is not what we all are concerned about. In fact, we could make the case that crises are just inherent to capitalism. The problem began when the financial crisis turned into a human rights crisis. We must pay try to understand and respond to the material and ideological underpinnings of this transformation.

Even though the general economic situation and welfare state in the Basque Country is stronger than in other regions in Spain, the number of complaints and queries addressed to the Ombudsman of the Basque Country since the crisis began has gone up really fast. Complaints grew by about 50% between 2010 and 2012, and the vast majority of them now refer to social exclusion, basic income and necessary benefits to ensure a minimum standard of living. Ararteko’s own research shows very worrisome data about the rise of child poverty in the Basque Country since the crisis began in 2007/08.

One of the main goals of the Ararteko is to win the frame battle in public policy making. The Ombudsman defends the added value of human rights and attempts to make a persuasive case in favour of a human rights-based approach to public policy making. This translates into the need to guarantee the minimum core obligations of all human rights, the requirement to adapt domestic law to the highest international human rights standards, the prohibition of discrimination and non-retrogressive measures, the need to pay particular attention to the most vulnerable groups, etc. A comprehensive human rights approach is particularly necessary in a time of economic crisis. I believe these four elements are of key strategic importance right now.

  • Ensure citizens’ right to know and freedom of information. Official documents must be made publicly available unless there are good and limited democratic reasons not to.
  • Assess the impact of public policy. Governments bear the burden to prove that their policies are best suited to achieve progressively the full realisation of socioeconomic rights.
  • Protect the right to remedy and hold to account those who are responsible for the current human rights crisis. Non repetition is a key element of the right to reparation.
  • Respect the right to dissent and protest. We must apply the highest standards of freedom of expression and association when policing demonstrations.

What can Ombudsman offices and other national/public human rights institutions do in this context?

  • First and foremost, exist. As pointed out by the former Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg, “Ombudsmen and human rights bodies are crucial” in a time of austerity. In the last few years we have observed a very worrying political campaign in Spain to get rid of some Ombudsman offices. I believe this is a step backwards in the institutional protection of fundamental rights.
  • Be humble and work with others to reach further. This means working hand in hand with local and regional civil society organisations, listening to their concerns, developing strategic partnerships and building bridges between public officers and civil society.
  • Be humble (again) and use new tools. Legal analysis is not enough anymore. Human rights institutions must make use of the whole array of analytical tools, such as quantitative research and public policy and budget analysis.
  • Network across Europe. Many of the public policies and pieces of legislation that are applied domestically have their origin in the European Union. Ombudspersons and other human rights offices must develop networks in order to exchange best practices, identify similar concerns and come up with a shared strategy to target the policy roots of many of the problems that lie at the core of the social and democratic downturn Europeans face nowadays.

Koldo Casla



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