BLOG: Making Rights Real – the Role of Human Rights in the Public Budget

Why talk about human rights and budgets?

All governments[1] must respect, protect and fulfil human rights. The way they generate, allocate and spend money play a key role in this. You can't guarantee the right to vote if you don't have an effective electoral system and you can't guarantee the right to good housing without well-regulated public and private housing sectors.

Human rights are legal obligations that bind all future governments, regardless of who is in power. Policy and decision makers therefore need to understand the "why and how" of taking a human rights based approach, which starts from two quite simple assertions:

Human rights principles shape the process of budgeting. 

Human rights standards shape the goals of the budget.

Human Rights principles ensure process and decisions are transparent and accountable and includes the meaningful and active participation of rights holders.

Human Rights Standards - any country that has signed up to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural rights (ICESCR) must take positive steps (including budgetary) to:

  • satisfy minimum essential levels or a minimum core of each right[2],
  • increase the availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality of goods and services,
  • progressively realise people's rights - the minimum core is not a ceiling of achievement, but a basic floor of provision to build from,
  • not take deliberately retrogressive measures,
  • use the maximum of their available resources to realise rights.

Designing a human rights compliant budget ensures that resources are used effectively and without discrimination. It also examines what effort has been made to generate resources. The question is not simply how to divide the public finance pie - but is the pie as big as it could be to start with?

  • Is the taxation system raising the maximum available funds?
  • Who are resources generated from? Are any groups impacted unjustly?
  • Has tax evasion, avoidance and debt been reduced in line with EU standards?

Resources must also be spent the way they were intended to; unspent allocations have not made maximum use of available funds. In-year and mid-year reviews must highlight whether budget allocations are being fully spent and if not, what plans exist to re-invest any surplus finance in rights (in a transparent, participative and accountable way).

Lack of resources is a common reason given by governments for being unable to fulfil human rights obligations (especially economic and social rights). This reasoning cannot go unchallenged. In 2012 Spanish civil society used human rights budget analysis to challenge the government assertion that austerity was the only public finance option to reduce the public deficit. In partnership with tax inspectors, they were able to show that that if Spain had reduced the size of its shadow economy by ten percent (bringing it in line with EU standards), it would have been able to generate €38 billion, exceeding the total budget cuts for 2012.[3]

Good rights based laws and policies can still result in unacceptable experiences of rights holders if they are not properly resourced. Taking human rights standards into account when developing the budget is not a magic bullet. It can, however, help us to ask the right questions to support effective, transparent, fair and accountable use of national resources.

- Dr. Alison Hosie, Research Officer, Scottish Human Rights Commission

Find out more about Human Rights Budget Work and download our Human Rights Budget Work: What, Why and How? briefing papers here.


[1] Government is meant in its widest sense, national and local.

[2] Guidance on what the minimum core should mean in practice is contained within General Comments of the various UN Treaty Body Committees: