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The response to the crisis must include a shift towards more equality

Strasbourg 11/05/2009
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Measures against the economic crisis should not only focus on restoring the banking system and encouraging investments and more spending. There is also an urgent need to protect vulnerable groups from injustice.

To prevent a financial meltdown governments have used colossal amounts of tax payers’ money to bail out toxic debts. Moreover, key industries in a number of countries have been given state support to survive the crisis. At the same time increased unemployment is placing a further burden on the national budgets: less income and more expenditure.

The argument has already been made that there is now no room for social assistance to match growing needs. If that attitude gains ground there is a risk that the crisis will turn into a political and social one as well. People may not accept a lowering of their standards while financial institutions, widely regarded as having acted irresponsibly, are subsidized.

When speaking to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg in late April the Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero recognized the necessity to meet the needs of those who are now particularly vulnerable - those who will suffer the most from the adverse consequences of the crisis.

Mr. Zapatero pleaded for solidarity with the poor, describing poverty as the main reason for social backwardness and violations of human rights, not least the rights of women. “The only way to guarantee our welfare is fighting poverty. This is not only a moral must. This is not only a matter of image. This is a political responsibility”, the Prime Minister said. Towards the end of his speech he added that the crisis should also be seen as an opportunity, a chance for positive change.

Such a change requires that protectionist tendencies are not promoted in government programmes. Fortunately, there seems to be a widespread recognition that solutions must be sought across borders, through multilateral agreements and inter-state initiatives beyond narrow national interests. It was significant that Mr. Zapatero referred to the Millennium Goals; the new global order must include a genuine solidarity with developing countries.

Another positive trend is the acceptance that governments must play a more active role in preventing unethical business practices and correcting structural market deficiencies. There is a clear link between this request and human rights, not least social rights. It is of great importance that human rights principles are given emphasis in the on-going discussions on the lessons learned from the crisis.

The time is long overdue for a serious attempt to address the enormous gap between the wealthy and the destitute, between those who have the means and the contacts and those who are marginalised and powerless. In a globalised and inter-connected world such injustices should no longer be accepted or even possible.

In his inauguration speech President Obama made the point that the crisis is not only the result of the reckless risk-taking of bank officials or the “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some”. It was also, he said, the result of “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”.

That new age will not arrive if we continue to ignore the deep inequalities and injustices in our societies. These undermine social cohesion and thereby security for all. And certainly they violate the principles of human rights which we have pledged to respect over and over again.

Even in Europe there are large groups of people who are poor and marginalized. They tend to lack influence and opportunities for making their voices heard. In many cases they feel ignored by political parties and, in general, they have little confidence in the authorities. They are often victims of crime but can mistrust the police. In the courts they are disadvantaged in comparison to those who can hire prominent lawyers and they are over-represented in prisons.

The poor tend not to receive the right education which in our society provides the ticket to a life in which one’s rights are respected. Many are also marginalized because they belong to a minority; some of them do not speak the dominant language and are therefore doubly excluded.

There is a gender aspect to these injustices as well. It is estimated that about two-thirds of those who live in absolute poverty are women. This is not by accident; it fits into the general pattern. Women tend to have a weak position in poor communities and the barriers which prevent them from asserting their rights can be almost insurmountable.

The current crisis ought to be a turning point for concrete measures to restore social justice – we must not allow these gaps to grow even further. It has to be recognized that the crisis goes deeper than obvious economic failures; it touches basic confidence and ethical values. It is time to start re-building a cohesive society which excludes no-one and leaves no-one behind.

This is our human rights challenge. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that all human beings have the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing and medical care (Article 25).

There has been some resistance to recognizing these rights in the United States – including the right to education – as full human rights. Even in Europe there have been voices arguing that an adequate standard of living cannot be more than an ambition. However, an overwhelming majority of countries have ratified the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Social Charter (revised) has received further endorsement. A majority of the Council of Europe states have now ratified the Charter in its original or revised form.1

Another key instrument to address injustice in Europe is Protocol 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights which sets out a general prohibition against discrimination. It lists a number of unacceptable grounds for discrimination by way of example, but goes on to state in Article 2 that no public authority should discriminate against anyone on whatever ground.

This general prohibition will also cover discriminatory treatment on social rights. When ratified by members states this norm becomes the basis for applications to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 17 Council of Europe member states have now ratified this Protocol. I hope that more member states will make the same move.2

In fact, many countries have now adopted a comprehensive anti-discrimination law against all forms of discrimination, on whatever ground. Ombudsmen or other offices are established to promote equal opportunities and non-discrimination. However, major aspects of social injustice are often not tackled in the context of these efforts against discrimination. The focus has instead been on status-based equality such as gender or race.

A distinction between these two forms of injustice is artificial. In fact, they are in many real life cases totally intertwined as is demonstrated, for instance, through the phenomenon of female poverty.

The Equal Rights Trust, a non-governmental body based in London, has recently presented a Declaration of Principles on Equality, which argues that both these types of injustice must be tackled through a comprehensive approach. The text was drafted by human rights and equality law specialists and though it has no formal status, it has been endorsed by a great number of international human rights experts.3

One of the major points in the Declaration is that positive or affirmative action is necessary to overcome past disadvantages and to accelerate progress towards the equality of particular groups. It also makes clear that equal treatment is not the same as identical treatment. To realise full and effective equality it is necessary to treat people differently according to their different circumstances, to assert their equal worth and to enhance their capabilities to participate in society as equals.

Social justice cannot be established only through the traditional human rights instruments, even if updated and modernised. The enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots is a major political and ideological challenge the resolution of which will affect profoundly many aspects of our society. And this, in turn, will promote the realisation of all the agreed human rights standards.

Perhaps this was what the drafters of the Universal Declaration had in mind when they wrote (Article 28): “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”.

Thomas Hammarberg


1. 13 Council of Europe Member States have ratified the 1961 Charter and 27 Member States have ratified the 1996 Charter. 7 Member States have ratified neither Charter, namely Liechtenstein, Monaco, Montenegro, Russia, San Marino, Serbia and Switzerland.

2.17 Council of Europe member states have ratified Protocol 12 and 20 member states have signed but not ratified the Protocol.