Eurozone governments need to recognise that Greece’s debt is a human rights issue

By Sanhita Ambast and Kondylia Gogou

After almost a decade of loans, bail-outs and severe austerity, Greece is poised to exit its third bail-out in August this year. Last week, the government of Greece and its creditors held discussions about what to do regarding the debt facing Greece’s government. At 177.8% of GDP in 2018, currently the highest in the EU, the debt could reach up to 250% of GDP by 2060, according to forecasts prior to the discussions.

These discussions were crucial, not just for the sustainability of Greece’s economy but also for ensuring that the human rights situation in Greece does not deteriorate even further as a result of the austerity. According to IMF forecasts, the government of Greece may be spending close to 45% of its GDP just servicing its debt by 2060, which will leave it with very little resources to spend on its other legal obligations, including ensuring people’s economic and social rights, including their right to health, education, housing, social security and work. The terms of any agreement on debt may also require conditionalities or include terms that undermine or limit the ability of Greece’s government to fulfil economic and social rights for all people.

It is crucial that discussions on Greece’s economic future takes into consideration human rights concerns. Over the past decade, the creditors - as well as Greek authorities taking part in negotiations - have side-lined Greece’s economic and social rights obligations, at great cost to people in Greece. What both parties seem to forget is that, even in times of economic crisis, these obligations continue to apply and cannot be disregarded.

In these circumstances, it is no surprise that human rights monitoring bodies have consistently raised serious concerns about the severe human rights impact of austerity measures in Greece, including on people’s rights to health, housing, education, work, and social security. In the words of a UN expert on the effects of foreign debt, “[s]ocial and economic rights have been denied in a widespread manner [in Greece] … The austerity measures implemented since 2010 have contributed significantly to this outcome”. For example: between 2009 and 2016, unmet health needs for financial reasons tripled in Greece, going from 4% to 12%. During this period, public spending on health almost halved, going from €16,184 million (2009) to €8,552 million (2016).

And it’s not just people in Greece who have suffered. Austerity measures introduced in the context of the 2008 economic crisis have seriously impacted economic and social rights protections across several countries. In a report released earlier this year, Amnesty International showed how austerity measures in Spain have made health care less accessible and affordable. These measures have contributed to almost a doubling of waiting times for elective surgery, and have resulted in people with chronic health conditions struggling to pay for medicines and often rationing them out. The measures have had particular and disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes, and particularly on people who are older, needing mental health care and treatment, those with disabilities, and with chronic health conditions.

Amnesty International is currently investigating the impact of austerity measures on the right to health in Greece and has communicated in writing its key concerns to the parties involved in the discussion about what to do about Greece’s debt last week. We emphasized that the human rights obligations of both the Greek government and creditors – thus far largely ignored – need to be central to these discussions. More specifically, we asked both sides that they should:

  • Ensure that the terms of any agreement on debt, including the financial burden of debt servicing, do not compromise Greece’s ability to allocate the necessary financial and other resources to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights;
  • Assess the human rights impact of any future agreement on debt, as well as any proposed changes to economic reform programmes;
  • Take urgent steps towards addressing the impact that the economic crisis and austerity measures implemented over the past decade have had on people’s economic, social and cultural rights, with particular focus on how they have impacted marginalized groups.

There is an urgent need to conduct a comprehensive the human rights impact assessment of almost a decade of austerity in Greece, and to hold decision makers to account. In the meantime, any decision taken should not further entrench these harms. Ensuring that human rights obligations are central to the any discussion is a necessary first but very belated step in seeking to account for the suffering of the past ten years.