What began as a financial crisis is rapidly turning into a global human rights crisis.


Mary Robinson talks to CESR about the lessons of austerity, the post-2015
development agenda and the importance of social mobilization

Just as greater poverty and misery are threatening the realization of economic and social rights, the repression of growing social protest is threatening civil and political rights. A rising tide of xenophobia and discrimination is also already threatening the wellbeing of migrants and minorities. Yet despite the human rights dimensions of the crisis, government responses have largely failed to take their obligations in this regard into account. Austerity measures being implemented in countries such as Spain and Ireland are exacerbating the marginalization of vulnerable sectors rather than protecting their inherent human rights.

At the Center for Economic and Social Rights, we are working to ensure that human rights are not forgotten as governments meet to discuss what can be done. We call on governments and policy-makers to take into account their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights for immediate crisis responses and longer-term decisions about economic policy and economic governance.

Challenging complacency about the impacts of the crisis

A human rights approach challenges complacency over the terrible consequences of the economic crisis on human lives and human dignity. Many organizations are estimating how many millions of people will lose their homes, their livelihoods, their incomes, their health and education. The World Bank, for example, estimated that up to 400,000 children would die in 2009 as a result of the crisis.

But these terrible consequences of the crisis often are accepted as inevitable, as if there is nothing that we can do about them. A human rights approach challenges this complacency - it is not inevitable, and nor is it acceptable to accept these losses to human life and dignity. We have to reorder our priorities and put people first. Indeed governments have obligations under human rights conventions to prioritize the fulfillment of "minimum essential levels" of economic and social rights, to guard against any discrimination and to target the most vulnerable. These obligations are not derogable - they become even more essential in times of crisis. It is not acceptable that governments can allocate billions of dollars for banking bailouts, yet make few resources available to prevent as many as 400,000 children from dying during the crisis.

Incorporating human rights into responses to the crisis

                  Related content
Advancing fiscal justice: A summary of CESR's publications on fiscal policy and human rights (2014)
Fiscal Fallacies: 8 Myths about the ‘Age of Austerity’ and Human Rights Responses  (2012)
A Bottom-Up Approach to Righting Financial Regulation (joint briefing series)
Mauled by the Celtic Tiger: Human rights in Ireland’s economic meltdown (2012)
Spain Factsheet (2012)
Joint Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on the occasion of the Fifth Periodic Review of Spain (2012)
Spain CESCR submission: English summary (2012)
Human rights and economic crisis: the response of the United Nations system (2011)
Bringing Human Rights to Bear in Times of Crisia (2010)
Documenting the Global Recession: Crisis and Opportunity (2010)
Rights in Recession? Challenges for Economic and Social Rights Enforcement in Times of Crisis (2010)
Human Rights and the Economic Crisis: Consequences, Causes and Responses (2009)

Human rights must be central to our understanding of the impacts and consequences of the crisis, but also the causes of the crisis. This understanding helps to frame choices of policy responses in ways that address human rights concerns:

  • Consequences of the Crisis - the need for a human rights impact assessment: The real consequences and the greatest burden of the impacts has fallen on the poorest and most marginalized communities and the realization of their human rights. The rights to housing, work, food, water, education, health, and even the right to life are all being threatened, yet states' responses so far do not appear to be guided by the need to avoid retrogression and violations of these rights.

  • Causes of the Crisis - the need for a human rights analysis: A human rights analysis requires us to take a step back and analyze the deeper, structural causes of the crisis. This includes, for example, understanding the role of the international community's and international financial institutions' actions and failures to act that contributed to the crisis. Examples include the failure of states to regulate in the public interest and the failure of states to address unequal development, rising inequalities, stagnating wages, where these amount to failures to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

  • Choices of policy responses - the need for a human rights approach: In the short term, the choice of responses must prioritize the people - rather than the banks and businesses - that are most affected. In the long term, it means addressing the structural causes and abuses of power that have caused the crisis, redefining the principles that underlie the global economy to ensure the capacity of governments (and non-state actors) to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all people. 

Homepage photo of protesters in Madrid, Spain, courtesy of Adolfo Lujan. Photograph of Guatemalan girl and brother courtesy of Charlie Wright / Northwright.

Learn More Below

CESR has compiled useful resources related to the impacts of the economic crisis on economic and social rights.

Advancing fiscal justice through human rights
A summary of CESR's publications on the links between fiscal policy, including both the generation and allocation of resources, and the fulfillment of human rights.
Excluding undocumented migrants from health services is a violation of European law
Press release: A new report from the European Committee on Social Rights finds Spain’s legislation denying health care services to undocumented migrants to be regressive.
Austerity ‘undermining human rights’, says Council of Europe Commissioner
December 5th, 2013
Publication: A new Council of Europe Issue Paper, commissioned from CESR, assesses the human rights impacts of austerity measures and sets out an agenda for change.
Accountability Not Austerity Can Help Prevent the Next Financial Crisis
by Niko Lusiani
June 25th, 2013
CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani argues that, alongside weak regulation and growing inequality, systematic failures in accountability also helped cause the global financial crisis.
King, Keynes and Obama’s legacy at the IMF
by Niko Lusiani
January 20th, 2013
Blog: As the US marks Martin Luther King Day, CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani calls for the iconic leader's social justice vision to be remembered in contemporary social and economic policy.
Time to Make the Financial Sector Accountable to Human Rights
Press release: New website to expose financial sector abuses launched on International Human Rights Day
Balancing the books, but neglecting the people
Op-Ed: CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz, writing in the Irish Examiner, examines the parallel patterns of retrogression stemming from Ireland and Spain's respective austerity programs.
Europe moves forward on Robin Hood Tax while US balks
by Luke Holland
October 10th, 2012
Blog: The 'Robin Hood Tax' has come one step closer after 11 European countries agreed to move forward with the initiative. Certain key states, including the US, remain opposed, however.
Financial Regulation as if Human Rights Mattered
September 10th, 2012
Powerpoint presentation: Speaking at the recent CIVICUS World Assembly in Montreal, CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani explained the critical importance of integrating human rights considerations into financial regulation. His powerpoint presentation can be accessed here.
CESR backs Irish civil society's call for rights in constitutional convention
June 28th, 2012
Joint letter: CESR has joined Irish civil society organizations in calling for public participation and the inclusion of economic and social rights on the agenda for the forthcoming constitutional convention.
CESR joins letter to EU Heads of State on Financial Transactions Tax
June 27th, 2012
Joint letter: CESR has joined a coalition of 20 other human rights and social justice organizations in calling for bold leadership on the much-needed financial transactions tax.
UN urges governments to prioritize human rights over austerity
June 15th, 2012
News article: The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has issued an unusual open letter urging governments to prioritize human rights in times of economic crisis.
‘Robin Hood’ would never forget to give to the poor
Joint letter: CESR has joined a letter to European leaders calling on them to make the Financial Transactions Tax a reality and to make sure the proceeds it generates are used to help the most vulnerable.
Ireland: Austerity must not trump human rights in constitutional reforms
Analysis article: CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz unpacks the human rights issues at stake in this week's referendum in Ireland on the EU Fiscal Compact Treaty.
UN calls on Spanish government to 'revise' austerity measures which are harming human rights
Press release: The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has echoed civil society demands in questioning the cuts made to social spending in response to the crisis.
Naciones Unidas pide al Gobierno español 'revisar' las medidas de austeridad
Nota de prensa: El Comité de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales de la ONU se hace eco de las demandas de las organizaciones de la sociedad civil y cuestiona los recortes sociales.
The Group of 20, Financial Regulation and Human Rights
Briefing: The fourth publication in the 'Righting Financial Regulation' series examines how human rights should inform the G20's role in managing the financial system.
A Bottom-Up Approach To Righting Financial Regulation
CESR has joined the Steering Committee of the Righting Financial Regulation project, a new coalition seeking to confront the human rights implications of the global economic crisis.
UN rights experts join calls for FTT as Global Week of Action gets underway
News: A group of UN human rights experts today released a statement, produced in close collaboration with CESR, echoing the growing calls for a global financial transactions tax.
Taking Spain's austerity measures to task at the United Nations
UN submission: As Spain appeared before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for the first time in eight years, CESR has presented two new documents in Geneva.
Factsheet: España
Una nueva ficha informativa analiza la situación de los derechos económicos, sociales y culturales en España, especialmente tras la crisis económica que comenzó a afectar al país en 2007.
Spain factsheet
A new CESR factsheet examines the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in Spain since the economic crisis took hold in 2007
Social rights; the other deficit
Op-ed Article: To whom is the Spanish state ultimately accountable, the markets or the citizenry? This article by CESR Program Director Gaby Oré was published in El País, Spain's most important newspaper, on 7 May 2012.
Spain answers to UN for rights impacts of crisis response
by Marga Lema Tomé
Blog: With austerity measures dramatically undermining ESC rights in Spain, the country is appearing before the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for the first time in eight years.
Financial Transactions Tax: A Human Rights Imperative
Briefing: This succinct document - the third in the ‘Righting Financial Regulation’ series - provides an overview of how the FTT would work and the benefits it would provide.
Mauled by the Celtic Tiger: Human rights in Ireland's economic meltdown
February 12th, 2012
Briefing: This new CESR report finds that Ireland has violated its obligations under international human rights law in its handling of the economic crisis.
Austerity and retrogression: Have governments got the right?
February 6th, 2012
Press release: As European leaders agree a fiscal compact that is likely to further prejudice economic and social rights, CESR joins an open letter to Spain's Prime Minister.
Carta abierta al presidente del gobierno español
February 2nd, 2012
CESR, el Observatori DESC y Amnestía Internacional se han dirigido al presidente del Gobierno español recordándole que la crisis económica no es una excusa para no respetar los derechos humanos.
Central Banks' human rights obligations
Briefing: The second two-page briefing in the 'Righting Financial Regulation' series examines the role Central Banks can and must play in protecting human rights.
Human rights and economic crisis: the response of the United Nations system
This CESR resource document examines the reaction of the various branches of the United Nations in the face of the global economic crisis. It finds that, despite a great deal of lip-service being paid to the “human aspects” of the downturn, human rights have not been properly considered.
Why is a Human Rights Approach Needed in Financial Regulation?
In the first of a series of two-page briefings, the 'Righting Financial Regulation' project explains why human rights are crucial to the development of a just and stable economy. CESR forms part of the steering committee of RFR.
Time to address the economic and social rights deficit
by CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz
December 10th, 2011
As the world marks International Human Rights Day on December 10, CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz reflects on the status of economic and social rights in this age of austerity.
Rights in recession: a framework for human rights-centered economic policies
On 29 November 2011, CESR Senior Researcher Nicholas Lusiani delivered a presentation at Unicef's New York headquarters on the potential for human rights norms to inform economic policies, thereby contributing to a more just society. To access the presentation in pdf format, click on the title above.
Elections in Spain: tough choices for tough times
November 18th, 2011
As voters head to the polls amidst the worst economic crisis in recent history, Ignacio Saiz warns that democracy without social rights risks becoming a 'dictatorship of the markets'.
CESR joins call for G-20 leaders to embed human rights in decisions
CESR has come together with 185 other civil society organizations from around the world to remind decision-makers at the G-20 summit in Cannes that human rights must be a key consideration in both their discussions and any commitments undertaken
G-20 and financial regulation: what’s at stake for economic and social rights?
As the self-selected rulers of the economic and financial universe gather in Cannes for the G20 summit, CESR Senior Researcher Niko Lusiani asks what’s at stake for economic and social rights?
As protest pressure builds, CESR joins letter to US Congress
October 19th, 2011
As protests over the conduct of the financial sector spread around the world, public anger over bank bailouts and regressive spending cuts shows no sign of abating. Against this backdrop, CESR has joined an initiative demanding that America’s political leaders uphold basic human rights and dignity in its budget decisions.
Millennium Development Goals
The adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 was a landmark achievement for the international community. Efforts to reach them are falling short, however.
MDG failures prove need for a new rights-based development agenda
July 14th, 2011
The slow pace of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, revealed in a newly-released UN report, demonstrates the need for a more ambitious and rights-based agenda to end global poverty.
Bringing Human Rights to Bear in Times of Crisis
A human rights analysis of government responses to the economic crisis
Documenting the Global Recession: Crisis and Opportunity
New publication of photographs highlights human rights during times of economic crisis.
Human Rights and the Economic Crisis
A new CESR briefing explores the human rights dimensions of the global economic crisis: its consequences, causes and responses.
Rights in Recession?
An analysis by CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz in the summer 2009 Journal of Human Rights Practice addresses the challenges for economic and social rights enforcement during economic crisis.
Which regions are affected by the crisis?
Resources on the impact of the economic and financial crisis on developing countries, OECD and developed countries, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Which human rights are affected by the economic crisis?
Resources on the rights to education, health, food, work, housing, adequate standard of living, and development.
Who is affected by the crisis?
Resources on the impacts of the crisis on different groups of people, including the poor, marginalized, women, children and migrants.
Events
Conferences and international meetings focused on the global financial and economic crisis