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Opinion: Human rights must be put at the heart of the budgetary process

If human rights matter to our government, they must play a significant role in shaping budgetary decisions.

Aoife Nolan

IN IRELAND, THE budget is not connected to human rights. Human rights concerns have not historically played a significant role in shaping budgetary decisions. No human rights impact assessment is carried out to identify how different budget policy options will affect human rights enjoyment. Human rights issues are not cited by the Minister for Finance in his announcement of the budget. Nor are they generally considered in the extensive media coverage that precedes and follows that announcement.

From another perspective, the Irish budget is inextricably connected to human rights. All human rights have budget implications in the sense that ensuring their implementation and enjoyment requires resources. The child’s right to protection from all forms of violence cannot be guaranteed in the absence of adequate funding of a functioning child protection system; the right to a fair trial is not realisable where a state has not allocated resources to ensure the existence of an effective and independent courts system; the right to education will go unsatisfied where the budget makes inadequate infrastructure allocations.

A strong indicator of the Government’s priorities

The budget is essentially the ‘blueprint’ for state resource allocation and expenditure over a set period; the choices made in the budget reflect the Government’s priorities and policy-making agenda. Where the budget fails to take into account or reflect human rights, then these are highly likely to be ignored in policy-making more generally. The winners and losers in budget terms are a strong indicator of the Government’s priorities – who and what it perceives as important. Given that, the omission of human rights from the budget process is a significant one.

The failure to take human rights into account is at least partially attributable to the non-transparent nature of Irish budget decision-making. The role played by the Economic Management Council in determining the parameters of economic policy has been the subject of particular concern. In July 2013, the Minister for Social Protection (now Tánaiste), argued that the Council – whose membership is confined to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister for Finance and Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform – was not seeing the ‘big picture’ of the Irish economy ‘because of its exclusive nature and the influence of non-elected officials from only four departments’. Where economic decision-making is opaque and economic policy-makers are not accountable, there is little room for injecting human rights into the budget process.

It could be different.

In Ireland, we have a strong tradition of engagement around the budget from a human rights and social justice perspective. Groups like Social Justice Ireland, FLAC, and the Children’s Rights Alliance all provide pre-budget submissions, seeking to inform policymaker debate and decision-making (albeit with limited impact so far). These groups also provide post analyses of the budget once it has been announced. So, information on how budget choices on human rights in Ireland is readily available, should the Government choose to have regard to it. Furthermore, last week Amnesty International Ireland launched an important publication on applying Ireland’s economic, social and cultural rights obligations to budgetary policy. This report could be used as a key guiding framework by the State.

Do the concerns raised have any impact? 

Unfortunately, human rights activists’ efforts to engage policymakers have largely been one-sided. As Amnesty International points out, while the Department of Finance accepts pre-budget submissions, only one government department, the Department of Social Protection, has regularly consulted civil society as part of its own departmental budgetary considerations. While civil society is able to present concerns to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform there is no clarity about the weight given to the Committee’s post-consultation recommendations in budgetary decisions. As such, there is reasonable concern that the human rights issues raised with the Committee have little concrete impact.

More broadly, the Government’s resistance to rights language and concepts in the context of economic decision-making is evidenced by its use of the narrow rhetoric of ‘fairness’ and ‘progressiveness’ when talking about budgets, rather than ‘human rights’ or ‘equality’. The Government’s objections to one particularly resource-dependent set of rights – economic, social and cultural rights – is evidenced by its failure to act on the recommendation of 85% of members of the Constitutional Convention that greater protection should be afforded to these rights in the Irish Constitution.

Change will not happen by accident

Ireland has been extensively criticised for its failure to pay adequate attention to human rights in its response to the crisis; international actors such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights have repeatedly expressed human rights concerns in relation to post-crisis budgetary policy – but to little effect. The potential for the Government to rely on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission for guidance and support in assessing the human rights impacts of budget decisions has been stymied by the cuts made to the funding of that body, and its predecessor, since 2008.

Human rights were largely ignored by Irish economic policy-makers prior to the crisis and remain marginalised following it. As the Amnesty International report makes clear, if human rights are to be put at the heart of Irish governance, then they must be put at the heart of the budgetary process. This will not happen by accident. The Government must adopt a clear strategy to ensure that human rights steer all State decision-making – including budgets. Without this, human rights will remain beyond the reach of those to whom they are most important.

Aoife Nolan is a Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Nottingham. Read more about her academic work here or read her articles on theHuffington Post. Follow on Twitter: @commentator01.

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Aoife Nolan

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