Contesting Austerity: Genealogies of Human Rights Discourse

49 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2020 Last revised: 17 Jul 2020

See all articles by Matthias Goldmann

Matthias Goldmann

Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law; Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE; Goethe University Frankfurt - Cluster of Excellence Normative Orders; Goethe University Frankfurt

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Date Written: March 26, 2020


The dominant understanding of the role of human rights in the context of austerity induced by sovereign debt crises has shifted markedly over time. It reflects, and may have influenced, the genealogies of human rights law in the postwar era. Four different paradigms emerge. During the 1970s, the decade preceding the debt crisis of the 1980s, the idea of austerity as a response to debt crises was contested by the basic (human) needs approach and by the proposal of a New International Economic Order. Both strands of thought showed some affinity with human rights law, although not without ambiguity, understanding self-determination as a structural requirement for ESC rights enjoyment. Counterintuitively, though, the debt crisis beginning in the 1980s silenced, rather than provoked, any form of human rights-based critique. The IMF managed to shift the focus of the debate from human needs to human capital, in line with the emerging Washington Consensus. When the Iron Curtain fell, sovereign debt restructuring became more generous, but debtor states had to pay with ever more intrusive forms of austerity, including structural conditions such as respect for civil and political rights. This “governance paradigm” of human rights was countered by a transformative paradigm of human rights in which civil society articulated its critique of austerity. The IFIs avoided the issue of human rights, but reacted by adding “social” components to austerity that aligned with their focus on efficiency and growth and further entrenched sufficiency. The impact of austerity on the European periphery led to lots of human rights litigation, but a number of structural obstacles prevented its success. Instead, the crisis aftermath saw enormous progress in the political recognition of human rights as a relevant standard for austerity. This has given rise to a new political paradigm of human rights. While this genealogy shows the contingency of human rights discourse in relation to austerity, it reveals their potential for challenging economic expertise and empowering progressive views, provided human rights are used to politicize, not to depoliticize, distributive questions. The limits of human rights discourse are the limits of our imagination.

Keywords: human rights, austerity, sovereign debt, equality, social rights

Suggested Citation

Goldmann, Matthias, Contesting Austerity: Genealogies of Human Rights Discourse (March 26, 2020). Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law & International Law (MPIL) Research Paper No. 2020-09, Available at SSRN: or

Matthias Goldmann (Contact Author)

Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law ( email )

Im Neuenheimer Feld 535
69120 Heidelberg, 69120


Leibniz Institute for Financial Research SAFE

House of Finance
Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 3
Frankfurt am Main, 60323


Goethe University Frankfurt - Cluster of Excellence Normative Orders ( email )


Goethe University Frankfurt ( email )

Theodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 3
HoF H4
Frankfurt, 60629

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