What began as a meltdown of the global financial system in 2008 has been transformed into a new political reality of austerity which threatens over six decades of social solidarity and expanding human rights protection in Europe, says the Council of Europe in a recent report, while Eurostat found that a quarter of EU’s population is at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
Austerity measures across Europe have undermined human rights in key areas, the continent's top human rights organisation said on 4 December, when presenting a report, 'Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis', which says that EU policies in crisis-hit countries have neglected human rights considerations in their austerity programmes.
Public social spending has been the primary target of austerity measures in many countries in Europe, the report says. This has occurred through wage bill cuts or caps, especially for education, health and other public sector workers, the rationalisation of social protection schemes, the elimination or reduction of subsidies on fuel, agriculture and food products, stricter accessibility conditions for a number of social benefits, and other cuts to education and health-care systems.
"Many governments in Europe imposing austerity measures have forgotten about their human rights obligations, especially the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable, the need to ensure access to justice, and the right to equal treatment," said Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, at the launch of the 63-page paper.
The report suggests that many of the countries that have been under international bailout terms have been hit hard. Since 2007, homelessness has increased in 15 of the 21 countries monitored by national experts. The crisis has been identified as a key driver of expanding homelessness in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK. New groups of homeless people have emerged, with homelessness spreading among migrants, young people, women and families, the paper says.
The right to food has been affected by austerity measures when governments have limited food subsidies without adequate safeguards to ensure access to the minimum essential levels. Many people have faced setbacks in their right to water as a result of austerity. As a condition for international assistance from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, new fees for domestic water use have been introduced in Ireland, for example.
The right to education has suffered setbacks, primarily due to reductions in education budgets. In Greece, the EC, ECB and IMF have demanded that public spending on health should not exceed 6% of GDP, with a potentially long-term impact on public health. Latvian budget cuts in the health sector have undermined the availability of and access to health care.
Civil and political rights, media freedom
Many governments have speedily drawn up austerity policies, side-stepping regular channels of participation and social dialogue on the pretext of a national financial emergency, the report says. It stresses that the severity of austerity measures alongside the frequent failure to consult with the people affected has provoked large-scale demonstrations especially in Spain, Portugal and Greece.
“Concerns have been raised about the use of excessive force against demonstrators and infringements of the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. Harsh reactions to social unrest may engender mistrust in the democratic system,” the paper says.
The Council of Europe report also stresses that media freedoms have endured setbacks in the context of austerity measures. Public and private media have suffered staff and salary cuts and the closure of outlets, the closure of the Greek public broadcaster ERT being singled out in particular.
“Not only do these cutbacks contribute to worsening existing problems of decreasing media diversity, they also threaten the effective operation of a fundamental pillar of democracy. The ability of journalists to perform their essential educational and watchdog roles has been impaired, curtailing freedom of expression and the right to be informed,” the report says.
A quarter of EU’s population at risk of poverty, social exclusion
At the same time, Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, published its annual survey of the social situation in the Union, revealing that the situation had worsened compared to last year.
In 2012, 124.5 million people, or 24.8% of the population, in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, compared with 24.3% in 2011 and 23.7% in 2008, Eurostat says. This means that they were in at least one of the following three conditions: at-risk-of-poverty, severely materially deprived or living in households with very low work intensity. The reduction of the number of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU is one of the key targets of the Europe 2020 strategy.
In 2012, the highest shares of persons being at risk of poverty or social exclusion were recorded in Bulgaria (49%), Romania (42%), Latvia (37%) and Greece (35%), and the lowest in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic (both 15%), Finland (17%), Sweden and Luxembourg (both 18%).
10% severely materially deprived
In the EU, 10% of the population were severely materially deprived, meaning that they had living conditions constrained by a lack of resources such as not being able to afford to pay their bills, keep their home adequately warm, or take a one week holiday away from home.
The share of those severely materially deprived varied significantly, ranging from less than 5% in Luxembourg and Sweden (both 1%), the Netherlands (2%), Denmark and Finland (both 3%) and Austria (4%) to 44% in Bulgaria, 30% in Romania and 26% in Latvia and Hungary.