I don’t want to just go back to our social rights of 2007

The economic crisis has eroded our social rights, but was the situation so good before the crisis? This was my key concern during a conference on the “Future of the Protection of Social Rights in Europe”, at which I spoke last Thursday. Being asked about the crisis led me to thinking: while people in vulnerable situations are worse of today, were they truly enjoying their social rights before the crisis? In 2008 there were some 81 million people living in Europe at risk of poverty. Homeless people were still fighting to have a roof above their head. After centuries of a medical approach, people with disabilities were finally witnessing the entry into force of the UN convention of the rights of people with disabilities.

So going back to the state of play of 2007 is not the answer. It will not fundamentally change the situation of the ones most in need of the social rights enshrined in the Revised Social Charter and in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. The crisis should be the catalyst for our decision-makers to realise that these rights cannot remain mere words: they need to be given life. As I once heard from a French professor of law, “la lettre tue et l’esprit vivifie”, or “the word kills, but the spirit gives life”. There are three main issues we need to change about the pre-2007 situation in order to have a better future and enjoyment of social rights.

Firstly, we need to pressure more EU member states to ratify the Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter Providing for a Collective Complaints Procedure. Put simply, it would allow NGOs like Social Platform’s 48 members to apply for the right to lodge a complaint against member states contravening social rights obligations: these could include the right to education (raised by our member Autism Europe), the right to housing (FEANTSA and ATD Quart Monde) or the right to health (IPPF-EN). Our members have been successful in ensuring that the people they represent actually enjoy their social rights, but their work would be hugely complemented by the ratification of the Additional Protocol. (For further information about the complaints raised by the above mentioned members, please click here).

But this alone is not enough. Secondly, we need a radical shift in the way we address social rights in general. What we have seen over the last 30 years is a burden on the person whose rights are being violated to carry out the cumbersome task of the complaints procedure to redress their situation. This has to change. I want to see public authorities take on the positive duty of taking all necessary measures to ensure that people may enjoy their social rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities illustrates this point; it does not lay out new rights, but it does establish measures to guarantee that people with disabilities enjoy the same rights as others. Accessibility of schools, public buildings and places of employment is not a new right – it is a measure to ensure access to the rights linked to them (work, education, social security).

Thirdly, social rights should not be dealt with by those working in the human rights field only. We must combine all EU policies that lead to concrete proposals that can strengthen social rights: this includes economic governance (social impact assessments of austerity measures), the internal market (the Accessibility Act), or trade agreements (exclusion of health, education and social services from trade agreements like the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). We call for supportive measures such as the recognition of social standards (such as minimum income, minimum wage and social services) to make sure that all resources possible are aimed at protecting and promoting social rights. We are also advocating for this paradigm shift in our approach to social rights by calling for an EU internal Strategy to Promote Human Rights with an action plan that brings together all the issues affected and the actors responsible for making a change.

If we continue to focus on the effects of the crisis, I am afraid we will miss the target of tackling violations of social rights pre-existing the crisis. The economic situation alone is not the cause of the social rights emergency we are faced with today. It has certainly exacerbated the problem, but we need to acknowledge that many problems are rooted in structured inequalities in society. Until we see a real commitment by decision makers to prioritise social rights, we will remain in our social rights rut. We at Social Platform are ready to lead the charge.

Let’s engage!

Pierre Baussand, Director