The right to food has been violated in Greece. Now what?

As the third economic assistance programme ended in August 2018, Greece faded from international headlines. But the consequences of eight years of savage cuts will be felt for decades to come. The true cost of the crisis is becoming clear in the lasting effects of slashed incomes, pensions and public investment under the lending conditions demanded by the Troika.

A new report, launched by the Transnational Institute, FIAN International, and Agroecopolis called Democracy not for sale: the struggle for food sovereignty in the age of austerity in Greece, documents the consequences of these austerity measures on people’s access to food, and the wider food and agricultural system, in Greece. Based on fieldwork conducted across Greece, including interviews with more than 100 people, the report finds that:

• Food insecurity doubled during the years of the crisis, from 7 per cent in 2008 to more than 14 per cent in 2016
• Rural unemployment soared from 7 per cent in 2008 to 25 per cent in 2013 while rural income per capita dropped by 23.5 per cent between 2008 and 2013
• The share of households with children unable to afford a protein-based meal on a daily basis rose from 4.7 per cent in 2009 to 8.9 per cent in 2014
• There has been a discernible growth in the use of soup kitchens, food banks, and other humanitarian assistance schemes. In 2016 there were at least 200 organisations providing free meals to those in need in the prefecture of Attica alone.

These impacts are the direct result of the austerity measures imposed on Greece. Several austerity measures – including changes to agricultural taxes and social security regimes and the drive towards privatisation and trade liberalisation – contributed directly to undermining the right to food in Greece. Other measures such as minimum wage reductions and pension cuts also affected the right to food, as well as the right to work, housing and health.

Amazingly enough, no precautionary measures were taken to avoid such harm. No human rights-based impact assessments were conducted prior to, during, or after the passing of the three Memoranda of Understanding, even though this is a clear minimum standard required by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – which Eurozone member states are parties to – when taking such retrogressive measures.

Who is accountable?

But while it is clear that austerity in Greece led to violations of human rights, it is less clear who is to blame. The duty to uphold human rights obligations lies first and foremost with the Greek government. However, it is critical to situate this duty within the larger question of economic and democratic crises.

Eurozone member states, as direct lenders, are also responsible as they signed the Memoranda and, arguably, pressured the Greek government to do so. Many have commented – including those directly involved in the negotiations of the Memoranda – that Greece had little room to manoeuvre and that these were ‘not discussions between equals. Given evidence of this direct interference, or even coercion, by the member states of the Troika, they arguably own a larger share of the responsibility for the impacts of austerity.

At the official launch of the report on 20 November 2018 in Brussels, Olivier de Schutter, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, argued that we had arrived at a rather awkward juncture whereby violations of human rights have occurred, yet adequate mechanisms of accountability and redress are lacking.

There are some openings: he and his team are exploring the possibility afforded by Article 340 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union to hold the EU institutions to account, potentially forming the basis of a promising legal strategy.

This is for the future. For now, inspiration can be drawn from the manifold initiatives that sprang to life during the crisis to help secure people’s access to food, including solidarity kitchens, food cooperatives, community-supported agriculture schemes, and many other social and solidarity economy groups.

These involve farmers, fishers and citizens who are actively undertaking a new food politics. They are already reconfiguring relationships of power and accountability on the ground—and this groundswell will not go away with the official ending of the Memoranda. As one farmer interviewed for the report commented: “We have a movement now”.