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Economic reform must not be an excuse for undermining human rights

Added 31 Jul 2017
Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Council asked the Independent Expert on debt and human rights to develop guiding principles on human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) for economic reform policies. These principles will aim to provide states and international financial institutions, in particular, with guidance on how to identify the harmful impacts of structural adjustment and austerity measures. Equipped with the findings from HRIAs, decision-makers should take action to prioritise their obligations under international law and safeguard human rights. Now Eurodad has written to the Independent Expert setting out its views on what the key elements of these HRIAs should be, in order to guarantee they put the needs of citizens at the forefront of relevant economic decision-making.

Looming debt crises threatening human rights

With a new wave of debt crises threatening the Global South, there is renewed urgency to ensure a human rights-based framework underpins any consequent policy responses. Scarce resources for essential social services are already being increasingly diverted to service sovereign debts: according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign UK, the proportion of developing country budgets devoted to debt repayments increased by 45 percent between 2014 and 2016. In such a climate, a country’s ability to meet its obligations to safeguard rights relating to education, health, and social security, is clearly at serious risk.

Loan conditions worsening impact

Debt financing is of course a legitimate tool to support a country in driving development and thereby advancing the human rights of its people. It therefore naturally follows that the servicing of debts – and any decisions about restructuring debts or the conditionality linked to loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – should not undermine those very aims. Nonetheless, austerity and economic liberalisation measures have been widely promoted by the IMF and other crisis lenders, and Eurodad has been among the many critical voices highlighting the potentially adverse human rights impacts of these conditionalities on low income countries. The imposition of measures including reductions in trade union rights, lower minimum wage levels, or cutbacks to welfare programmes and pensions have been particularly damaging.

Ensuring HRIAs guide responses effectively

Eurodad has long called for HRIAs to be a mandatory part of development financing decisions, and for their findings to be used in a timely manner to trigger and guide debt workout processes. Moreover, for assessments to be effective they need to be based on international human rights laws and standards, and be carried out in a way that itself respects and promotes human rights. They need to recognise the interdependence of universal human rights, and duly have a comprehensive scope (for example, examining how cuts to social security might impact an individual’s right to health). Assessors should be genuinely independent from creditors, ensure open and effective participation by all relevant actors, and a robust evidence-base. Of course, for human rights to be meaningful, accountability is critical: ensuring HRIAs are not static, stand-alone exercises, but part of a regular review and monitoring of economic policies is therefore essential. Without the systematic integration of HRIAs into economic policy-making, the world’s poorest will continue to be hit hardest by austerity and structural adjustment programmes, and efforts to realise the 2030 development agenda will be fatally undermined.

You can read Eurodad’s full contribution to the Independent Expert here. We encourage you also to provide your input by 15 August.