The impact of austerity has fallen most heavily on those least able to bear it

‘How will the Government defend increased poverty rates, including for low-paid workers and children, when people are deprived of basic necessities such as clothing, food and household necessities?’

‘How will the Government defend increased poverty rates, including for low-paid workers and children, when people are deprived of basic necessities such as clothing, food and basic household necessities?’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘How will the Government defend increased poverty rates, including for low-paid workers and children, when people are deprived of basic necessities such as clothing, food and basic household necessities?’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Next week the State will appear before a UN committee in Geneva to account for its record on economic, social and cultural rights. In 1989 Ireland ratified an international covenant to respect, protect and fulfil rights such as the right to health, education, social security, an adequate standard of living and fair working conditions.

The Government will be asked to explain, in the absence of any human rights or equality assessment of the Troika bailout programme, why many groups already susceptible to poverty or inequality were particularly affected by the recession.

Central to the UN committee’s approach will be an examination of obligations on the State to apply key human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality and the prioritisation of the most vulnerable.

During a 2011 visit to Ireland former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, said human rights were not “dispensable during times of economic hardship”.

In the context of austerity measures, then chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Ariranga G Pillay, took the unusual step of writing to all states advising that they should “avoid at all times taking decisions which might lead to the denial or infringement of economic, social and cultural rights”.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission reports independently to the committee and will provide its report on the State’s compliance with the covenant when it meets the committee in advance of the State hearing on Monday.

Austerity measures

The commission will assist the committee in understanding the human rights impacts of policy decisions, on this occasion in the particular context of austerity measures.

Our report highlights stark choices made by Government that fall short of the basic core standards required by human rights law. The impact of a seven-year austerity drive has been enormous and the burden of the crisis and of dominant policy responses to it has fallen disproportionately on those least able to bear its impacts.

How will the Government defend increased poverty rates, including for low-paid workers and children, when people are deprived of basic necessities such as clothing, food and basic household necessities?

While there is no question that the State continues to operate within limited resources, this will not be accepted by the committee as a defence for failing in its obligations to protect socio-economic rights.

People with disabilities

I look forward to the publication of the long-awaited Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with a Disability. The strategy must provide for high quality, well-paid jobs to offset increased unemployment and the higher cost of living faced by many people with a disability. The State could signify its real commitment to people with disabilities by accelerating the ratification of the UN Convention on Persons with Disabilities.

In the field of education we see that discrimination continues for many. The Government’s commitment to amend Section 37 of the Employment Equality Acts to prevent further discrimination against teachers on the basis of their civil, family status or sexual orientation is welcome. I also hope and expect that the upcoming legislation on school admissions will address and reduce discrimination and disadvantage faced by Traveller children, migrant children and children with disabilities who are all over-represented in Deis schools. It should also provide for children of minority religious faith or no faith.

Ariranga has outlined the key human rights standards parliaments must take into account for any retrogressive measure. This includes that the measure must be: temporary, covering only the period of crisis; necessary and proportionate in that any other measure would be considered more detrimental to the realisation of social rights; not discriminatory and include all possible steps to mitigate inequalities and disproportionate impact on the most marginalised.

Instead of defending the choices that have made things worse for those least able to bear it, the Government has an opportunity to show leadership by committing to undertake budgetary processes in a new way – in a way that is informed by human rights and equality standards.

The commission intends to exercise our mandate in ensuring the public sector promotes human rights and equality when providing services. The recent Hiqa investigation into Portlaoise hospital demonstrates the pressing need for a shift in culture to truly ensure patients and their families are treated with dignity, and afforded access to adequate, affordable and quality healthcare.

I look forward to the committee’s recommendations to the State and hope to support the Government in making the right choices to ensure greater protection of economic, social and cultural rights in Ireland.

Emily Logan is chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

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