Effective protection of human rights at national level requires good laws and efficient judiciaries – but also strong, independent national human rights structures (NHRSs). This need is especially evident in times of crisis and austerity.
NHRSs – independent commissions, general or specialised ombudsmen, equality bodies, police complaints mechanisms and similar institutions – protect human rights for everybody, but they are particularly important to the most vulnerable groups. They provide an easily accessible helping hand to children, older persons, people with disabilities, Roma, migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.
These vulnerable people – who have a difficult time defending their rights in the best of times – have often been hit hardest by budget cuts in many European countries. NHRSs often prioritise helping such groups by doing outreach work and site visits, organising special telephone hotlines, providing legal assistance and representation in courts, and drawing the attention of the broader public and politicians to their plight.
Detecting emerging problems
Due to a general deterioration of the human rights situation caused by the economic crisis, many NHRSs receive more complaints to handle. Sometimes these complaints are of a new nature, concerning for example dwindling social benefits or the neglect and abuse of older and disabled persons. Rather than dealing solely with the consequences of the crisis and monitoring its impact, some NHRSs have taken a proactive approach.
On a recent visit to Portugal, I was interested to learn of the good work done by the Ombudsman, who has three specialised hotlines – for children, older persons and people with disabilities. While the primary purpose of the hotlines is to listen and give people advice, the information provided by the complaints gives a good indication of emerging problems affecting these groups and should feed into the policy process. This tool has become particularly relevant during the economic crisis which has hit the country.
Another good example of a NHRS coping with the human rights consequences of the crisis is provided by the Spanish Ombudsman, who recently published a study on the situation of people who cannot pay their mortgages. Some of the recommendations set out in the study helped the authorities adopt measures to increase the protection of these people from the risk of exclusion and poverty.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission is working with the executive to screen the impact of austerity on human rights. In the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission recently published an important analysis of the government’s spending review as it affects the right to equality on the basis of race, gender and disability.
Regrettably, many NHRSs have seen their operational capacities curtailed through severe budget and staff cuts, the closure of regional offices, or the merger of various bodies into overarching structures that are not as focussed or accessible as the bodies they have replaced.
NHRSs in Greece, Ireland, Latvia and the UK, for example, have faced cuts to their budgets or staff which may hinder their effectiveness. In some countries, such as Spain and Slovakia, regional ombudsmen or decentralised offices have been forced to close, thereby complicating individual’s access to complaint mechanisms.
The crisis may also represent an obstacle for countries which still have to put in place a nation-wide human rights structure compliant with the principles of independence, effectiveness and competence adopted by the United Nations in 1993.
Seeking advice from NHRSs
At a recent conference on the future of the European Court of Human Rights held in Brighton, all 47 member states of the Council of Europe reaffirmed the need to co-operate with national human rights institutions and to consider establishing them where this has not already been done. This is a further recognition that NHRSs can provide a unique contribution to national efforts to protect and promote human rights.
It is therefore necessary that Governments, particularly in countries undergoing serious austerity, involve NHRSs at all stages of the budget process. They can provide expert advice on the groups that need the most protection, on the impact of various policy measures and on the more general human rights consequences of the crisis, which shows no signs of abating in many European countries.