25th Oct 2016

Austerity stripping away Europe's human rights, watchdog says

Austerity measures imposed by international creditors on member states are eroding the social and economic rights of people, says human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe.

“The crisis is both a context and a constraint on government policy but some responses to the crisis have created much collateral damage to human rights,” Nils Muiznieks, the commissioner for human rights at the Strasbourg-based watchdog, told reporters on Tuesday (3 December).

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  • Over 30 percent of children in Spain live in poverty, says Muiznieks (Photo: Aégis)

Muiznieks, who presented a report on safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis, said cuts in public expenditure and selective tax hikes aimed a curbing public deficits have not achieved their stated aims.

Instead, the rights to decent work and adequate standards of living have rolled back, contributing to deepening poverty in Europe.

The report notes civil and political rights have also eroded as some governments exclude people on having any say in austerity proposals, provoking large-scale demonstrations.

Spain’s new €600,000 fine for civil disobedience

The latest twist came over the weekend when Spain backed a draft law on public order that cracks down on civil disobedience.

The revised draft, if ratified, means Spaniards can be fined up to €30,000 for insulting a government official, burning a flag, or protesting outside the parliament without a permit.

Covering faces or wearing hoods at demonstrations is also an offence.

Judges would also be able to impose fines of up to €600,000 for picketing at nuclear plants, airports, or if demonstrators interfere with elections.

“This new report of a draft law extending the scope and severity of sanctions against peaceful demonstrators is of serious concern,” said Muiznieks.

“When I see a potential fine of up to €600,000, I’d like for someone to convince me that that is a proportionate penalty,” he added.

Muiznieks said the proposed measures, tabled last month by Spain’s interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, run counter to the freedom of assembly.

“If you don’t let people have their say before, they’ll have their say afterwards in the streets,” he pointed out.

The Council of Europe in a report in October slammed the Spanish security troops for their disproportionate use of force against anti-austerity protests.

Undercover police officers at the demonstrations are not held accountable for their actions, it says.

The European Commission says it is unable to comment on Spain’s new draft law because it is a national issue.

“Member states are themselves responsible for the maintenance of law and order and the safeguarding of internal security on their territory,” said Mina Andreeva, the commission’s spokesperson on justice affairs, in an email.

She noted that the commission’s powers regarding acts and omissions by member states are limited to overseeing the application of European Union law.

But Muiznieks’ says human rights norms have to be respected in economic decision-making, including in national and international responses to the crisis.

The report says most national deficits did not result in unsustainable public expenditure from before the crisis but from the public rescue of financial markets.

The rescue cost an estimated €4.5 trillion between 2008-11. The economic downturn and historic unemployment rates means the worst affected member states lost out on vital tax revenue streams.

The worst affected are children, young people, the disabled, the elderly with low pensions, and many women.

“Human rights are not expendable in times of economic hardship but are essential if we want to have a sustained and an inclusive recovery,” said Muiznieks.

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