Human rights slipping because of austerity: UN investigator

Cephas Lumina urges troika to include human rights considerations in the country’s austerity programmes

UN independent expert Cephas Lumina says surge in unemployment and axed benefits has left a growing number of Greeks without health insurance and about 10 percent of the population living in ‘extreme poverty’

People eat pasta at a soup kitchen in a small square at Keratsini suburb, west of Athens, 13 December 2012 (Reuters) People eat pasta at a soup kitchen in a small square at Keratsini suburb, west of Athens, 13 December 2012 (Reuters) A senior United Nations investigator has said Greece is falling behind on its human rights obligations and strongly criticised the “excessively rigid” demands of the country’s bailout programme.

UN independent expert Cephas Lumina said that a surge in unemployment and axed benefits had left a growing number of Greeks without health insurance and about 10 percent of the population living in “extreme poverty”.

He said some 470,000 immigrants without proper residence permits were among the most vulnerable to labour exploitation and other abuses.

He urged the troika – the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund –  to include human rights considerations in the country’s austerity programmes.

 

(Human) rights … are under threat or being undermined by harsh pro-cyclical policies – austerity labor reforms, liberalisation and privatisations – that the government has been constrained to implement since May 2010 United Nations independent expert Cephas Lumina speaks to reporters in Athens, 26 April 2013 (AP) United Nations independent expert Cephas Lumina speaks to reporters in Athens, 26 April 2013 (AP)

“(Human) rights … are under threat or being undermined by harsh pro-cyclical policies – austerity labor reforms, liberalization and privatizations – that the government has been constrained to implement since May 2010,” Lumina told reporters in Athens.Luminia is independent expert at the Office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of states on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights. He spoke at the end of a four-day visit to Athens that included meetings with government and opposition officials and aid groups, as well as troika representatives.

Three years of austerity measures in Greece has pushed unemployment up to more than 27%, with more than 1.3m people out of work.

“The ostensible aim of the measures is to reduce the fiscal deficit, reduce labour costs and make the economy more competitive,” Lumina said.

“However, the available evidence indicates that these excessively rigid measures have resulted in a contraction of the economy and significant social costs for the population, including high unemployment, homelessness, poverty and inequality.”

The government is preparing a new round of cuts, due to be voted on by parliament on Sunday that will extend an emergency property tax and make it easier to fire civil servants.

The main areas of UN concern, Lumina said, were a surge in racially-motivated attacks against immigrants and the rapidly growing number of long-term unemployed who lost their health insurance when unemployment benefits are cut after a year.

“Due to the increase of long-term unemployment, only about 160,000 persons receive (unemployment) benefits,” he said.

He urged Greece’s authorities and creditors to take urgent steps to restore the country’s welfare safety net and launch a major social housing program, after the crisis pushed the number of homeless up by about 25% to 20,000 people.

The government has a practically non-existent social housing programme, compared to rates exceeding 20% in some European countries including Denmark, Britain and the Netherlands, according to the European Union’s statistics arm, Eurostat.

A full UN report on the human rights impact of the country’s austerity programme is not expected until March 2014, while the bailout program has been extended for two years to the end of 2016.

New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras renewed a pledge this week, promising to return to growth next year after the crisis saw output slump a staggering 25% . But unions say the recession is likely to continue until 2015 or 2016.

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