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State budgets reveal whether the government is committed to human rights

Strasbourg 03/08/2009
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The current economic crisis has made it particularly important to screen state budgets for their compliance with human rights. The allocation of resources will affect human rights protection - including gender equality, children’s rights and the situation of old or disabled persons, migrants and other groups which risk being disadvantaged. The way state revenues are obtained will also have an influence on justice and fairness in society; in this regard no tax system is neutral.

Budget analysis should therefore be seen as a potent instrument in the struggle for human rights. Looking at budget proposals from a rights perspective can assist politicians and planners to assign priorities in a non-discriminatory manner and to allocate resources where they are needed most.

Such a human rights-based budget analysis can also be a valuable tool for those who want to assess whether governments and parliaments have indeed taken steps to make reality of pledges given when international human rights standards have been ratified. The implementation of these treaties is certainly not cost-free and has to be reflected in the budget. This type of analyses could be used to hold the government accountable.

This is to a large extent a question of democratising the public discussion of the budget proposals. This in turn requires a presentation of the proposals and options which are understandable. Ministers of Finance should of course clarify how their proposed budgets affect different groups in society, including those marginalised and disadvantaged.

While many European governments and EU institutions have required detailed budgetary accountability – including on human rights consequences - from countries receiving development aid, European states have themselves been slow to apply a similar approach to their own budgets. Obviously, also European countries would benefit from a transparent screening of state budgets with regard to their effect on everyone’s rights.

International and European treaties require an end to discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, nationality, social origin, sexual orientation and several other characteristics. Some of them – for instance, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - also specify that the state should use the maximum extent of its available resources to ensure the economic and social rights.

With the enormous transfer of state money to the banking system in the past months there is clearly a risk that little is left to cover the social needs which are increasing with the higher unemployment. This is a stark illustration of the need for a frank and thorough discussion of the budgetary implications of our human rights promises.

Rights-oriented budget analysis is a fairly new approach. In the European context, the most concrete work so far has been done in the area of gender equality. Gender budgeting is a mechanism for translating a government’s commitments into its state budget so as to ensure that women and men can enjoyment their human rights on an equal basis. Budget analysis can also be used to screen public revenue, especially taxation, against the possible discriminatory effects of fiscal policy. Gender budgeting often applies performance targets and inclusive participation to improve efficiency, accountability and transparency.

Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Finland, Norway, Spain and Sweden are among the countries which have already applied a conscious gender perspective in their national budgetary cycle. The inclusion of gender budgeting in the budget guidelines of the Ministry of Finance has often been a key factor for encouraging a gender-sensitive approach among other Ministries.

Gender budgeting has also been used at the regional and local levels. In the Federal State of Berlin the regional parliament has taken a leading role in introducing gender budgeting as an integral part of the budget process. In Switzerland, the City of Basel carries out regular budgetary impact analyses based on gender. The Council of Europe has recently published a handbook on the practical implementation of gender budgeting

Human rights budgeting in other areas is still in its infancy in Europe. However, an interesting project has been initiated by the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast. It examines the effect of public expenditure on economic and social rights in Northern Ireland through a budget-based analysis. The aim is to identify international best practices as well as to analyze various examples of government resource allocation in areas such as housing. The results of the project should also strengthen the advocacy and monitoring capacity of civil society organizations.

Outside Europe, there are several examples of how budget analysis helps to evaluate the compliance of governments’ decisions with human rights. Such efforts have moved beyond the gender dimension even if this crucial aspect is incorporated as well. A good example is IDASA (Institute for Democracy in South Africa), an independent public interest organization.

IDASA has analysed the impact of the South African state budget on social development, affordable housing, education, health and reduction of poverty. In its analysis of the 2009 budget, IDASA notes the effect of the economic crisis on South Africa, holds the government accountable for its budgetary decisions and stresses the need to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and equitability of the state budget.

One lesson of what has been attempted so far is that rights-based budgeting or budget analysis require that there exist disaggregated data in relation to different groups in society.

Another experience is that the adoption of a participatory approach to budget formulation, which would involve different ministries, national human rights structures and civil society organizations, makes this approach more meaningful and in fact contributes to good economic governance. Rights-based budgeting puts the emphasis on results, transparency and accountability.

The key problem in all human rights work is still the gap between pledges and reality. This ‘implementation gap’ can only be bridged when budget processes and the budgets themselves reflect our vision about human rights for all.

Thomas Hammarberg