The political drive to enact economic austerity across Europe is not only harming the financial position of millions upon millions of people, it is also undermining human rights protections across the continent and beyond.
That is the message from the Council of Europeans on Wednesday, backed up by a new report (pdf) highlighting how the misguided policies implemented by governments in the name of fighting back against the financial crisis that began in 2008 have had the unintended (though predictable) consequences of harming fundamental social protections, especially for those most needy in society.
“Many governments in Europe imposing austerity measures have forgotten about their human rights obligations, especially the social and economic rights of the most vulnerable, the need to ensure access to justice, and the right to equal treatment," said Nils Muižnieks, the council's Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Council of Europeans—which is separate from the governmental body of the European Union but acts as a watchdog and adviser to the nation states and the collective body—says Europe's social model, historically "based on the foundations of human dignity, intergenerational solidarity and access to justice for all," is now under severe threat by the anti-democratic nature of top-down austerity and a spate of policies enacted under the threat from large creditors and business elites.
As Muižnieks statement continues:
"National decisions on austerity measures and international rescue packages have lacked transparency, public participation and democratic accountability. In some cases, onerous conditionalities have prevented governments from investing in essential social protection, health and education programmes. When the EU as a central actor in the crisis makes decisions about economic governance in member states and when the Troika sets conditions for rescue packages and loan agreements, the impact on human rights should be better taken into account.
"The economic crisis has had dire consequences on vulnerable groups, in particular on children and young persons. Youth unemployment in Europe has reached record levels, with millions of young people unemployed with scarred futures. Cuts in child and family benefits, health care and education have also added a strain on millions of families. An increasing number of children are dropping out of school to find employment and support their families, risking life-long setbacks in educational achievement, and providing the conditions for job insecurity coupled with the re-emergence of child labour and exploitation."
And highlighting recent developments in Spain, the EU Observer explores the report's argument that assaults on public dissent and democratic freedoms, such as the right to assemble and free speech, have been most severely squelched by the same governments who have most aggressively pushed austerity on their citizens:
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.
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.