Indignados: austerity as a violation of human rights

by Marta Sánchez on August 7, 2012

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By drawing attention to the systematic violation of human rights, 15-M has helped to shine a light on the illegitimacy of the financial structure.

“Human rights can reclaim their
redemptive role in the hands and imagination
of those who return them to the tradition of
resistance and struggle”

Costas Douzinas

This is the first of two articles by Marta Sánchez written as part of a research project on the 15-M movement at the Center for Human Rights in Nuremberg. 

The Movement that Deconstructed the Crisis

“The struggle for our rights as human beings underlies everything we have demanded in every square and every demonstration in this historic year of global change”, proclaimed Take the Square in their Call for an Alternative Day of Action on Human Rights Day. Since its emergence, the indignados movement has engaged in a twofold process concerning human rights: on the one hand, the movement identifies and denounces the flaws of the current system that have led to a widespread violation of human rights, specifically economic and social rights.

The movement was born in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, in the context of a wave of protest that swept across Europe in reaction to the austerity measures chosen to address the crisis and the “financialization” of the global economic space. Since its emergence in May 2011, the indignados have been actively engaged in a public debate about the crisis and have promoted a deliberative process of deconstructing the mainstream discourse of political and economic power surrounding the global crisis, providing an alternative explanation of its causes and consequences. The indignados denounce the fact that economic interests have been prioritized over the interests and rights of the people; they appeal to human dignity, the reverse side of which is indignation.

On the other hand, the indignados are attempting to fill in the vacancies of the current system with their own communal spaces, guided by the principles of solidarity and self-organization and involving a collective protection of socio-economic rights. The occupy movements all over the world have one thing in common, as Mike King argues: they all consider that the failures of the existing order, and the current global economic crisis, are an opportunity to fill the vacancies of a dying world while building a better one.

When the present social order makes life impossible for large numbers of people, these people will self-organize inside their communities while fighting for a just society that meets peoples’ needs. These movements, as such, are experimenting with new ways of ensuring human rights: their struggle is not only about being granted specific rights by governments, but it is also part of a larger political uprising in which people are starting to determine for themselves what they need and how they can help each other fulfill these needs.

With the aim of promoting a debate on the current economic and financial crisis, the indignados have recently launched the “dismantling lies” campaign (“desmontando mentiras”), which under the slogan “we were sleeping, then we woke up” seeks to deconstruct the mainstream discourse of the political and economic power around the global crisis and provide an alternative explanation of its causes and consequences. The key issues for this campaign are, on the one hand, the austerity measures undertaken by the Spanish government under the recommendations of the European Comission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund; and, on the other hand, the contradictions in the architecture of the global financial system as such.

The Movement’s Spearhead: Fight Back Austerity!

Austerity measures are one of the central issues for the 15M movement: from the beginning, the indignados have clearly stated that austerity harms the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, and that it worsens the living standards of a growing share of the Spanish population. The movement has called massive mobilizations in reaction to the announcement of further austerity plans launched by the Spanish government.

The last plan announced on July 13, 2012, aiming to cut up to 65bn euros from the public budget this year, responded to recent IMF recommendations to stay the course of cutbacks and fiscal stabilization. The indignados rapidly reacted against the new measures and called them an “attack” on social rights. In an extraordinary assembly held on July 16, 2012, the 15M movement called for a “citizen reaction” against “the financial coup d’état” that is being perpetrated against the 99% of the population, and called to join the massive nationwide mobilization organized on July 19, 2012. Mass protests gathered thousands of people in over 80 cities around the country united against austerity. in Madrid, a spectacular demonstration of hundreds of thousands marched with one common goal: to fight back austerity.

The impact of austerity measures on the enjoyment of human rights has been highlighted by the United Nations independent expert on foreign debt and human rights, Cephas Lumina, who has warned that the EU/IMF-imposed austerity measures and structural reforms in Greece may result in violations of the basic human rights of its people. The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, following the appearance of Spain before the Committee on May 7, 2012, called on the government to review austerity measures which are causing disproportionate harm to the most vulnerable and marginalized groups and individuals.

These expressions of concern pick up what the 15M movement has been denouncing since its very emergence: that the austerity plans are mainly cutting expenditures on social investment, thus affecting the poorest segment of the country’s population. In its manifesto of February 2012, the Working Group on the Economy of the Popular Assembly at Puerta del Sol denounced that the design of the cutbacks doesn’t address inequality, and as a result has a devastating effect on the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable segments of the population — while the wealthiest layer of society has hardly seen its living standards affected.

The main justification that has been offered for the implementation of these dramatic austerity measures is the need to tackle rising public debt and to consolidate the national budget. The indignados movement considers that in this process one essential step has been ignored: before tightening up public finances, the debt should be examined in order to determine whether it arose from legitimate public expenditures or whether it is the result of illegitimate transfers of public funds from taxpayers to the private sector, in order to compensate for the reckless risk-taking of Spain’s (corrupt and bankrupt) banking sector.

The 15M movement has therefore decided to create a platform for a “Citizen Debt Audit with the objective of promoting a popular analysis of the government’s public debt and the private debt subject to become public through bailouts and cleanup plans. Through this platform, the characteristics of the debt will be revised in an open, participatory process, which will also have a comprehensive vision, analyzing not only economic and financial issues, but also the impact on gender, environment, culture and social and political aspects. The platform has promoted the creation of an International Citizen Debt Audit Network (ICAN), that under the slogan “We don’t owe! We won’t pay!” held its first meeting in Brussels in April 2012, bringing together movements and networks from different European and North African countries that are fighting against austerity.

Redefining the Relationship Between Finance and Human Rights

The 15M movement has claimed since its emergence that the implementation of austerity measures can’t be seen as the only cause that is damaging the enjoyment of fundamental rights, but that the main cause of the crisis and of human rights violations lies in the very structure of the financial system, whose design has prioritized the market over the state as the principal driver and guarantor of human development. In its International Call for an Alternative Day of Action on Human Rights Day, Take the Square stated that “our freedom and dignity are under attack as a result of market dynamics and corrupt government institutions that are turning our local and global societies into increasingly unjust places”.

In fact, what the indignados are denouncing is that in the last decades, through the shaping of the financial structure inspired by neoliberal ideology, the state has abdicated many of its fundamental responsibilities towards its citizens — including the fulfillment of social and economic rights – leaving the responsibility of securing such public rights to the marketplace. Specifically, governments around the world have failed to fulfill the duty to protect human rights against the actions of third parties, as well as the duty to support the realization of human rights with the maximum resources available.

On the one hand, as Radhika Balakrishnan argues, financial institutions have harmed human rights by taking advantage of government inertia. In the neoliberal era, not only have states failed to regulate the financial sector and protect people’s rights; they have actively encouraged financial deregulation, thereby exposing unsuspecting homeowners, pensioners, depositors and workers to grave financial risks. Clearly, this development goes directly against the state’s obligations under international law to step in to protect economic and social rights when an individual business or institution threatens to interfere with these rights.

On the other hand, the public funds spent in massive bank bailouts put into question the human rights principle that the state should use the maximum available resources to fulfill its human rights obligations, since it shows that public money has in fact been spent on saving the too-big-to-fail banks instead of providing social safety nets to support those most affected by the crisis. If there ever was an example of privatizing profits while socializing losses, this is it.

Leaving the fulfillment of human rights and needs to the market without any kind of corrective action from government has left an open space for financial institutions and banks to pursue further profits through unstable forms of speculation. Private investors ended up speculating with billions of euros worth in assets — assets that they often did not even own, but on which they had purchased complex derivates — thereby gravely affecting the livelihoods of millions of people, as the bursting of the housing bubble in Spain shows. While bankers enriched themselves, almost half a million Spanish families lost their homes since the crisis began. In a grand act of ‘accumulation by dispossesion‘, these homes subsequently entered into the possession of the same very banks that had so recklessly provided the mortgages for them in the first place.

For these reasons, the indignados movement has since its very inception demanded that the financial institutions, bankers, and speculators engaged in such behavior should be held accountable. In this line, 15M has launched a new initiative to hold accountable Rodrigo Rato, head of Spain’s fourth-largest bank Bankia, and his chief executives. Bankia, whose balance sheet is burdened with toxic real estate assets, requested public aid to the tune of 19 billion euros in May 2012 to clean up its accounts. The Rajoy government willingly provided the bailout for a final sum of 23.5 billion euros, constituting the single largest bank bailout in Spanish history.

Some weeks before, a budget adjustment plan introducing 27 billion euros worth in cuts in crucial social services had been approved. It was therefore to be expected that the people would react strongly against the Bankia bailout, even more so when it was revealed that the bank had manipulated its balance sheets in order to hide losses; and even then no government inquiry was launched to determine who was responsible, and whether or not the enormous transfer of public funds to this corrupt private financial institution was legitimate to begin with.

The indignados took the lead and decided to send out a clear message: “the era of impunity is over”. A campaign called 15MpaRato was launched aiming to bring legal actions against Bankia’s chief executive. The working group driving the initiative presented a set of guidelines for action, started recruiting volunteer lawyers and looked for and identified more than 50 stockholders who felt they had been personally defrauded by Bankia and were willing to support the campaign. While the lawyers are volunteers, a massive lawsuit costs money, so the movement turned to “crowdfunding”, calling out to the masses of supporters through a specialized crowdfunding website for small donations. In less than a day, they raised 19,348 euros through 965 individual supporters, a number that exceeded the initial expectations (the organizers presented 15.000 euros as the required budget). The lawsuit was filed in June of this year and accepted by the Spanish National Court in July.

Nevertheless, while they prosecute bankers and speculators demanding accountability, the indignados simultaneously move beyond a focus on individuals, clearly stating that judging those responsible for the crisis is not enough; that the relationship between finance and human rights as such should be re-conceptualized at a much more fundamental level. The structural dependence of the state on private financial capital has been greatly influenced by a recent process, referred to as the financialization” of the global economy over the past three decades. This process has lead to a situation in which the financial system as such has an enormous impact on the overall performance of politico-economic structures and institutions, thereby affecting the socio-economic rights of the people on an increasingly global scale.

The indignados denounce governments worldwide for having allowed such a permissive environment for speculation to thrive, and even more so, for acting as the guarantor of private bankers by assuring that the losses of their reckless risk-taking will be covered by increasingly unaffordable bailouts with public money. Yet at the same time, governments have refused to act as the guarantors of their own citizens, who are now losing their homes in foreclosures and forced evictions. There have been countless bailouts for financial institutions making losses on bad mortgages; but there has not been a single bailout for those homeowners who lost their livelihoods in the process.

Therefore, the indignados advocate a drastic redefinition of the relationship between finance and human rights, one that would require “a ‘revaluation’ of life and a ‘de-financialization’ of reality”, in other words, a radical new approach that would prioritize people’s rights over economic interests. That has been one of the central demands of the movement since the very beginning, when thousands of people took to the streets in Spain under the slogan “we are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers!”

This was the first of two articles by Marta Sánchez written as part of a research project on the 15-M movement at the Center for Human Rights in Nuremberg. Part II will follow later this week.

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