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The cost-of-living crisis is a human rights crisis and requires a human rights-based response.  

This is the message our Head of Policy, Campaigns and Research (Helen Flynn) delivered to a panel organised by the Human Rights Consortium Scotland on the cost-of-living crisis as part of Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland. 

During the panel Helen emphasised that the crisis, with its increasing poverty, inequality, and destitution, potentially represent human rights violations and so require a human rights-based response. 

The presentation also highlighted that that this crisis is not happening in a vacuum, and we are not starting on a level playing field. We have experienced a decade of austerity and an incredibly unequal Covid-19 pandemic – those experiencing the sharpest effects of poverty (often those with protected characteristics) have experienced the sharpest impacts of both previous crises. 

Human rights as legal obligations 

Helen looked at the 7 United Nations human rights treaties the UK has signed up to and so has agreed to be legally bound by. These create legal duties for the UK and Scottish governments and public authorities. While these aren’t currently rights you can take to a domestic court (though hopefully the new Human Rights Bill in Scotland will change this), they are obligations we as civil society can hold government and public authorities accountable for. 

Helen noted that in particular the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were striking in terms of how relevant the rights are to the current crisis. The Covenant is about how governments use the resources they have (Article 2(1)), ensuring equality for all (Article 2(2) and Article 3), the jobs people do and the conditions in those jobs (Article 6-8).  It’s about social security, including the adequacy of the system (Article 9), protecting the family (Article 10), having a decent standard of living including food, clothing and housing (Article 11). It’s about our health – both mental and physical (Article 12), education (Articles 13 and 14) and the enjoyment in our lives – our right to culture (Article 15). 

Human rights as a response to crises 

Helen reminded participants that this was not the first financial crisis in recent years, human rights are universal and indivisible, and the government’s obligations don’t stop because of a trying financial outlook. She highlighted that 10 years ago, during the ‘austerity years’ the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) laid out State obligations with regards to measures taken during times of financial crisis. They are: 

  • First, the policy must be a temporary measure covering only the period of crisis.
  • Second, the policy must be necessary and proportionate, in the sense that the adoption of any other policy, or a failure to act, would be more detrimental to economic, social and cultural rights.
  • Third, the policy must not be discriminatory and must comprise all possible measures, including tax measures, to support social transfers to mitigate inequalities that can grow in times of crisis and to ensure that the rights of the disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups are not disproportionately affected.
  • Fourth, the policy must identify the minimum core content of rights or a social protection floor, as developed by the International Labour Organization, and ensure the protection of this core content at all times.   

Helen added that this wasn’t the only roadmap that the Committee had given in terms of providing a human rights solution to a human rights crisis. Back in 1990, over 30 years ago, the Committee also made it clear in General Comment No 3 that in realising rights, a wide range of measures should be employed, not just legislation. These include (but are not limited to) administrative, financial, educational and social measures.  

Helen argued that the answers are there for government and public authorities in terms of how to find a rights based solution to this human rights problem.  

Human rights in practice 

In terms of what a human rights response to a human rights crisis looks like in practice, Helen introduced a publication released last week by Tai Pawb, the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru and Shelter Cymru. They commissioned Alma Economics to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into what the introduction of the right to adequate housing over 10 years would mean for Wales. They found that introducing the right to adequate housing in Wales would generate £11.5 billion in benefits while costing £5 billion. This includes 

  • £5.5 billion improved wellbeing
  • £2 billion cost savings to local authorities
  • £1 billion savings to NHS Wales
  • £1 billion savings to the criminal justice system
  • £1 billion additional economic activity
  • £1 billion value of new housing 

Helen asserted that a human rights solution to this human rights crisis is not wishful thinking. It is the practical, sensible solution, and is the solution that will help to build the fairer and more just society we want to see. 

Next steps 

In terms of next steps, Helen encouraged participants in Scotland to: 

  • Firstly, and importantly, continue pushing for their rights to be brought into domestic legislation and ensure the Scottish Government delivers. 
  • Continue holding the UK governments and public authorities to account on the international stage. Helen added that we have the Universal Periodic Review in November, reviews by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and Committee on Rights of Disabled People are due next year and we are in the process of the review by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Helen encouraged groups to get involved in these, give evidence.
  • Use these legal standards to frame your work, use the reports of these expert committees and the standards they set to hold duty bearers to account in campaigning and advocacy – demand they meet their obligations.
  • Lastly, remember the importance of solidarity. 

Violations of human rights are not an inevitable consequence of the cost-of-living crisis. Human rights should be protected, respected, and always fulfilled, but particularly during a crisis. 

For more:

Join our online training on the Universal Periodic Review (7 November 14:00-16:00)