Applying a Human Rights Framework to Macroeconomic Policies

Margot Baruch, Guest Blogger. 

Tax laws impact government revenue and expenditure and can also violate states’ obligations to protect, respect, and fulfill economic and social rights.  Last week the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University circulated their most recent Nexus Brief: Shaping Feminist Visions in the 21st Century (, which provides an analytical tool to measure government’s realization of economic and social rights through economic policy. The tool uses human rights principles as a framework for auditing economic policy.

The current global economic crisis provides stark evidence that the economic policies of the last three decades have not been working. The devastation that the crisis has wrought on the most vulnerable households in the Global North and Global South is a reminder that the formulation of economic policy and the realization of human rights (economic, social, political, civil and cultural) have for too long been divorced from one another. Economic policy and human rights do not have to be opposing forces, but can exist symbiotically.

Macroeconomic policies affect the operation of the economy as a whole, shaping the availability and distribution of resources. Within this context, fiscal and monetary policies are key. Fiscal policy refers to both public revenue and public expenditure, and the relationships between them as expressed in the government budget. Monetary policy includes policies on interest and exchange rates and the money supply, as well as the regulation of the financial sector. Macroeconomic policies are implemented using instruments such as taxation, government spending, and control over the supply of money and credit. These policies affect key prices such as interest and exchange rates that directly influence, among other things, the level of employment, access to affordable credit, and the housing market.

Applying a human rights framework to macroeconomic policy allows States to better comply with their obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill economic and social rights. Human rights are internationally agreed-upon universal standards. These legal norms are articulated in United Nations treaties including, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Article 1 of the UDHR states that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Although the UDHR was written about six decades ago its relevance is enduring. Many of the ideas address concerns and critical issues that people continue to face globally. Issues regarding inhuman punishment (Art. 5), discrimination (Art. 7), property ownership (Art. 17), equal pay for equal work (Art. 23/2), and access to education (Art. 26/1) are pertinent matters in countries South and North of the equator.

More specifically, States have an obligation under international law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, including the economic and social rights of people within their jurisdiction. This is particularly relevant now given the financial crisis. In the U.S., regulation is skewed in favor of certain interests. The failure to extend government’s supervisory role in the context of social and economic change is a failure with regard to the obligation to protect human rights.

States should abide by key human rights principles to achieve economic and social rights, but what are the ways to measure their success or failure to comply?

One way is through the tool that CWGL produced. First, you select an area of economic policy to measure. We focus on public expenditure and taxation in the brief; however, other policies can be considered. Often policy makers overlook the ways in which economic policy can be used to realize economic and social rights. This exercise can show how they are mistaken. Next, you can identify which human rights principles apply most directly to the selected economic policy. So for example, public expenditure can discriminate against women if programs fail to address social barriers that women and girls experience in accessing services. If a program is cut where women are the main beneficiaries then they will bear a disproportionate burden and the government would fail in it obligation to comply with the human rights principles of non-discrimination and equality.

In terms of taxation, tax laws should be available to the public and government officials to provide spaces for civil society participation in the development of tax policies. If the governments do not avail themselves of these opportunities, than they violate the human rights principles of participation, transparency and accountability.

Human rights should be applied directly to the design and implementation of economic policies. If governments are more mindful of the implications of macroeconomic policy for the realization of human rights, poverty and inequality will be addressed more effectively and systematically.

Here are resources which might be useful for understanding the importance of using a human rights framework to address/assess macroeconomic policies in this period of austerity:

Auditing Economic Policy in the Light of Obligations on Economic and Social Rights,

Occupy Wall Street from a Human Rights Lens,

Nexus: Shaping Feminist Visions in the 21st Century,

Economic Policy and Human Rights: Holding Governments to Account,

Why Human Rights are Indispensable to Financial Regulation,

Margot Baruch is the Program Coordinator for Economic and Social Rights at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

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2 Responses to “Applying a Human Rights Framework to Macroeconomic Policies”

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