UN Expert reports on austerity measures and human rights

Publish Date: 
Thursday, March 22, 2018

In the recent Human Rights Council session (37th session, March 2018), after consulting with civil society organizations and various stakeholders, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky — the  UN Independent Expert on the effects of state’s foreign debt and finance on human rights — released a report on the development of guiding principles for assessing the human rights impacts of economic reform policies.

Examining the negative effects of recent economic reform policies, this report takes a closer look at the global “austerity measures” trend, how it impacts our human rights, and how the human rights framework can be used to assess who would be impacted by economic reforms, whether and how the enjoyment of rights would be affected and whether alternative measures are available.

Austerity measures refer to government budget cuts achieved through higher taxation, reductions in public welfare programs, or both. States often cite foreign debt crises as the reason for reducing their budgets. Often, government programs designed to uphold the public’s right to health, work, housing and social security are sacrificed to balance these state budgets.

ESCR-Net members — Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University, and Plataforma Dhesca Brasil  — were among the civil society groups that submitted contributions about the relevant standards, tools and examples that could be useful in the development of guiding principles.

This report is a first step in larger UN mandate (Human Rights Council res 34/3) to learn about current and ongoing negative effects of austerity measures and develop guiding principles for states to assess their economic reform policies from a human rights perspective. The next steps being further discussion and participation from a broader community.



Although the severe human rights impacts of the recent financial crisis have been widely documented, policy responses to the crisis reveal deep-seated structural neglect of human rights in economic policy formulation — including, insufficient protection of the most vulnerable peoples, and a lack of attention to public participation, consultation, transparency and accountability.

This neglect is becoming increasingly apparent and it is the force driving the development of these guiding principles — along with analytical and methodological tools — to mend the human rights impacts of austerity measures.

The report begins by detailing the reduction of negative social impacts up until the 2007–2008 financial crisis and the evolution of structural adjustment responses to financial crises. It then explains how structural adjustment programs affect human rights and presents legal and economic arguments for ensuring that states’ policies work with the human rights framework.

Accordingly, the reports argues that human rights-based impact assessments would:

  • increase transparency and public accountability around decision-making on economic policies, making the potential impact of policies more visible;

  • provide a value-basis for policy-makers to choose measures to take, for instance by preventing sweeping budgetary cuts that adversely affect vulnerable groups;

  • help identify implementation of prevention, mitigation and redress measures that need to be embedded in economic policies.

The main challenges of developing guiding principles for assessing human rights impacts are discussed, including the need for reliable and disaggregated data to inform a further analysis.

Specifically, the strengthening of national statistics to monitor progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals is mentioned as a way to facilitate progress in monitoring the realization of some human rights, with the caveat that additional indicators covering particular rights may also be needed.

It concludes with some preliminary recommendations to guide further discussions on the content and format of these guiding principles, including their basis, scope, content, timing issues, and some reflections on how to proceed.

Next steps
August 2018: The Independent Expert will circulate the guiding principles draft, and seek written feedback in the form of comments from all stakeholders — including, international financial institutions, national human rights institutions, civil society organizations and other relevant stakeholders.

End of 2018: A second expert meeting will be scheduled and the revised draft based on feedback will be circulated. A public consultation with states and other stakeholders is also expected to be held.

February 2019: The Independent Expert plans to submit the final text of the guiding principles to the Human Rights Council for its consideration at its 40th session.


Access the UN Independent Expert’s full report.