Dr Dimitrios Kagiaros (Edinburgh Law School) reports on a recent workshop, ‘Specifying and Securing a Social Minimum’, held at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Oñati, Spain with support from the Global Justice Academy.
Organised by Professors Mike Adler (University of Edinburgh), Sara Stendahl (University of Gothenburg) and Jeff King (UCL), the purpose of the workshop was to bring together international experts from a variety of research backgrounds to discuss the theme of ‘Specifying and Securing a Social Minimum’. The overarching issue that was examined related to the difficulties in determining how poor and vulnerable people can achieve basic minimum standards of nutrition, health care, housing, income, employment and education.
Drawing from a variety of disciplines, including legal theory, human rights law, constitutional and administrative law and social policy, the invited academic speakers were asked to submit research papers illustrating recent developments and new challenges in this field. The workshop followed a particularly innovative approach in generating discussion. Commentators were assigned to each paper and were responsible for presenting its content while also acting as discussants, providing feedback and identifying points for further discussion. This facilitated in-depth consideration of each paper and multiple opportunities for exchange of ideas across disciplines.
The conference theme generated debate on two controversial issues. Firstly, the workshop addressed different approaches and obstacles to defining a social minimum. This included discussion on the concept of poverty, the legal position of social assistance recipients, the concepts of social rights and social responsibilities, and the relationship between resources and the concept of a ‘minimally decent life’.
Secondly, the workshop aimed to bring further clarity to the thorny issue of how such a minimum can be achieved. More specifically, participants critically assessed the contribution of national policies, international conventions, targets and development goals, bills of rights or other forms of constitutional protection to securing this social minimum. Special emphasis was placed on the role of courts. Participants presented judicial approaches to securing a social minimum from India, South Africa, Brazil, and at the international level, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.
Dr Kagiaros’ paper focused on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in this debate. The paper relied on recent admissibility decisions where applicants unsuccessfully challenged austerity measures adopted to give effect to conditionality agreements in states in the midst of a debt crisis. While ultimately the applications failed at the admissibility stage, the Court in obiter statements alluded to the possibility that a wholly insufficient amount of pensions and other benefits would, in principle, violate the Convention. The paper explored these statements in detail to decipher whether in fact the Court would be willing to set a social minimum standard of protection. The paper argued, that although a duty not to target specific individuals with harsh austerity measures while leaving others unaffected has been read into the ECHR, it is unlikely that with this statement on insufficiency of benefits the Court intends to create a social minimum.
Overall, this was a particularly enriching experience for all involved and hopefully more similar opportunities will arise to discuss these issues in even greater depth.
More about the author:
Dr. Dimitrios Kagiaros is a Teaching Fellow in Public Law and Human Rights at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law. He has taught on constitutional law, administrative law and human rights law courses at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Hull. His research interests include whistle-blower protection, the impact of European sovereign debt crisis on human rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to freedom of expression.