Austerity refers to a state policy of strict spending cuts with the aim of balancing the state budget. Governments frequently resort to such a policy in times of financial crisis in particular. Austerity policies can, however, have a negative impact on human rights. The austerity policy in Greece, for example, is resulting in a series of measures that undermine the protection of economic, social and cultural human rights.
According to UN expert Cephas Lumina, the austerity measures that have been in place in Greece since 2009 have had a particularly severe impact on migrants, children and elderly people, despite the fact that the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers that those groups should be afforded particular protection, even in times of economic crisis. Women in particular have been affected by the massive layoffs since they have occurred mainly in social professions in which women were predominantly employed. The large-scale closure of public nursery schools limits the right of children to early learning and increased fees in hospitals have led to failure to treat pregnant women who cannot afford the newly introduced childbirth fees. The total number of people without access to health insurance and healthcare has risen dramatically. Austerity measures have often also extended to tax reforms. Ireland, for instance, raised its VAT rate to 23 per cent. In the case of VAT, the relative tax burden decreases as income increases, and a rise in the VAT rate hits poorer households harder.
Austerity measures should always be accompanied by a human rights impact assessment. However, until now the methodology for that has largely been lacking. The key questions are as follows: How can a state use the maximum funds it has available to ensure the implementation of economic, social and cultural human rights, even in times of crisis? What can be done to prevent cuts from having a particularly severe impact on those who are already living in precarious circumstances? And, finally, how can measures be prevented that reduce the already attained level of human rights protection?
Since 2013 the German Institute for Human Rights has been working together with the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) on the topic of austerity and human rights.