"Human rights," says Amnesty International, "are basic rights and freedoms that all people are entitled to regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, race, religion, language or other status."
They include civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights -including the right to participate in culture, the right to food, the right to work and receive and education.
But as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned in her opening statement at a UN Human Rights Council session this week, policy changes in response to market pressures pose a serious threat to the cornerstones of a dignified existence.
"As the debt crisis unfolds across Europe, America and elsewhere, we are witnessing a wave of drastic social cuts, and a worrying trend of legal reforms to contain budget deficits," Pillay said.
She stressed the importance of looking out for those already living in precarious and marginalized situations, those who are entitled to "safety nets."
Not so pretty
Economic woes brought about by the free hand of social reform and deficit laws enshrining the principle that market stability takes precedence over basic human rights are evident in most industrialized nations.
But Dr Fiona de Londras of University College Dublin School of Law says the problem is best highlighted in countries such as Ireland and the US where there is "already a large gap between rich and poor and where the economic circumstances have resulted in the creation of a band of people who were previously middle class and are now struggling to make ends meet."
They are not, however, alone. Also vulnerable are youngsters struggling to get onto the job ladder, pensioners who are being made to work for longer, immigrants who stand to lose employment protection, the disabled and, says Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, women.
"Women tend to be most affected by the casualization of employment contracts," Saiz told Deutsche Welle, "but they are also indirectly affected because in many countries social protection is falling to the family, where women are the main carers."
The second wave
This phenomenon is part of what he describes as the second wave of impact on human rights as a result of the global financial crisis. The first, which began in 2008 caused large-scale job losses, turned many out of their homes, and in developing countries, led to a startling increase in child mortality rates.
The second, ongoing wave, which is being felt across industrialized nations, is a direct result of social cuts put in place to try and make up for tax revenue lost to growing levels of joblessness. It might sound like a Catch 22, but that, says Saiz, is just spin.
"People are being made to think that austerity is a fact of life, part of the natural order of things, as if it were a tsunami that we could do nothing about," he said. "Yes it is a tsunami, but it is man-made, and governments can take action to balance their budgets without sacrificing human rights."
Such action could include rethinking corporation tax, an untouchable for some Western policymakers, rather than hiking VAT and thereby driving the sting deeper into those who are already struggling on with insufficient means.
Making things better
De Londras says the current climate of reduced resources, which makes it harder for states to fulfill human rights obligations, is a chance to reevaluate the modus operandi.
"This ought to be an opportunity to think imaginatively about how best to reduce the gap between rich and poor and how to reorient the economic system in a manner that might make the re-emergence of a wide gap between rich and poor less likely," she explained.
Any such rethink would require governments to acknowledge that their cost-cutting tactics have human rights implications. That, in turn, would require the kind of political will which has hitherto been unforthcoming.
"We are scandalized that human rights are not even a part of the debate," Saiz said. "These issues go to the heart of people's ability to live in dignity, but we never hear them uttered in policy debates around austerity measures."
He is, however, heartened by the growing movement toward peaceful protest, and remains hopeful that demonstrations such as those mounted by Spaniards earlier in the year, can play a role in securing sustainable and positive change.
If they do not, and if governments fail to sit up and take notice of the growing numbers of people living outside the basic framework of human rights, Saiz doesn't rule out a third wave of impact; one in which greater disaffection leads to greater scapegoating, criminality and general social unrest.
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge