Austerity, rage, rights and riots

by Emile Parrotta

The two major headlines on today’s BBC homepage point to widespread rioting in London, the EU’s largest and wealthiest city, and a Europe-wide share plunge. I suspect there is a connection. In the previous post, Paula Mendez Keil spoke of the ‘greying of Europe’ and its effect on the economic competitiveness of the continent. But what does all this have to do with human rights?

As soon as policymakers take a step back and survey the damage caused by both upheavals, they will be frantic to respond. In the UK, the result will doubtlessly be calls to strengthen the numbers and powers of the police. There has already been discussion of introducing the use of water cannon to suppress the violence. While these responses might maintain order in the short term, they do not look at the underlying causes of such unrest. This is the role of human rights. While those in the human rights community should not be seen to jump to the defence of the rioters, they should also be the first to ask the tough questions: How does severe income inequality affect access to basic goods, services and jobs in London? Are there other factors behind the desperation, anger and violence of the nation’s youth? Finally, what kind of policies should be implemented in response, aside from strengthening the police, in order to prevent this happening again?

In Europe and the wider world today stocks are continuing to plunge. The spectre of a double-dip recession has returned. Europe-wide austerity measures in response to the debt crisis have made spending cuts all the rage. The welfare state will be the first victim and while it is likely that austerity measures are hurting the economy, they hurt individuals most. Therefore there is a great risk that the present economic slowdown will ultimately damage Europe’s social rights protections. As the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty said recently, “unjustified reductions in expenditures devoted to implementing public services that are critical to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights will be in violation of human rights standards.” Furthermore, it is the already disadvantaged who are impacted most severely. Politicians need to realise that this degree of austerity, manifested in cuts to public services coupled with inequality and unemployment, inevitably breeds social unrest.

About the Author:

Emile Parrotta is a teacher of human rights and English based in Eastern Europe. He recently graduated from the London School of Economics with a masters in Human Rights.

2 comments:

  1. British Prime Minister David Cameron stated today, referring to the rioters, "Picture by picture, these criminals are being identified and arrested, and we will not let any phony concerns about human rights get in the way of the publication of these pictures and the arrest of these individuals." Does this speak for itself? What kinds of 'phony concerns' might he be referring to?
    From www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/10/david-cameron-water-cannon-police-riots

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  2. Thanks Emile; scary words from DC indeed. I suspect this choice of words/example is related to the fallacy, perpetuated by various media sources, that police are not allowed to publish pictures of wanted criminals because of their 'human rights'. See here:
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmpolcon/writev/1049/m2.htm

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