Human rights and ‘Sharing the Pain’

Amidst all the current mainstream rhetoric about sharing the burden of our 
economic crisis, there’s been a striking lack of discussion about the 
limits of the pain that can be offloaded on the worst-off. Ireland’s
 obligations under international human rights law are very relevant here,
 but seem to be missing in action at the moment. What follows are a few 
suitably po-faced and technical legal points: read at your own risk!

Ireland, along with its fellow EU member states, has signed and ratified a
 series of human rights treaty instruments which commit states to 
respecting basic social rights. These include the UN Covenant on Economic,
 Social and Cultural Rights (UNESCR in the acronym-ridden world of 
international human rights law), and the European Social Charter, which 
requires states among other things to maintain a functioning social
 security net, provide social assistance to those in need and ensure 
workers receive a fair and just remuneration.

The European Committee on Social Rights has interpreted these obligations as requiring states to
 provide a decent income to individuals and families in need, which does 
not fall excessively below the median standard of living. Similarly, the 
Committee has interpreted Art. 4(1) of the Charter as requiring states to
 establish a minimum wage that does not fall too far short of the median
 national wage. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 
has developed similar standards.

In other words, respecting social rights means more than simply ensuring
 that the poor don’t starve: it requires that individuals and families 
receive a decent income through work or social assistance. Ireland, along
 with the rest of the EU, has accepted these obligations: they bind our 
generous donors as well as ourselves.

However, they seem at present to be
 comprehensively overlooked in media and policy debates about our austerity 
package. Few possibilities exist for enforcing these international law 
obligations through courts: however, they provide a point of reference 
which should place limits on how low we as a society choose to go.

Colm O'Cinneide
 is a Reader in Law
 at University College London.