A year of contrasts: Annual Report 2021-22

Ian Duddy, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, reflects on the Annual Report 2021-22.

Like many other public bodies in Scotland, the Scottish Human Rights Commission publishes an annual report. This report sets out our performance over the last financial year - what we have delivered and what remains as work in progress. For the Commission, it is also a chance to reflect on the wider state of human rights in Scotland.

This year’s Annual Report highlights a year of contrasts. The Commission and its staff have worked hard to secure progress in a number of areas. I would highlight our work on deaths in custody; the Mental Health Law Review; a financial redress scheme for survivors of historical child abuse in care; training to other public bodies in Scotland, the evidence and analysis we provided to Parliament on a raft of legislation, and our work on environmental rights during the COP26 Summit in Glasgow. 

These highlights give a flavour of some of our work over 2021-22. However, we know that some important challenges remain. 

Challenges remain

Scotland has transitioned out of lockdown, but we are still grappling with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and its human rights implications. The COVID-19 Independent Inquiry is essential to learn lessons and avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. Human rights must remain an integral part of that Inquiry.

The cost of living crisis is the greatest challenge facing Scotland right now. When people struggle to heat their homes, cannot afford nutritious food for their families, or fail to achieve an adequate standard of living, then human rights are not being fully respected. We need to ensure that over the next year, the most vulnerable people in our society are protected.

The Scottish Government has also announced plans to incorporate various international human rights treaties into Scots Law. We support that ambition, which will offer additional protection to people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and women, among others. But legislation is only a first step and is meaningless if not implemented. Any new legislation must be accompanied with firm commitments by those in power.

No country has a perfect record on human rights and when things go wrong, people need access to justice. Sometimes an official apology might be enough, at other times formal mediation, arbitration or financial compensation may be necessary. Access to justice, including the courts, needs to be affordable, timely (ie not take years) and accessible. Courts can be intimidating places and everyone, no matter how serious their crime, has a right to receive legal representation. Yet we know that access to justice varies across Scotland.

Scotland’s human rights record

The Scottish Human Rights Commission also works internationally. The UK, including Scotland, will be reviewed on its human rights record at the United Nations on 10 November. Own our analysis and report showed that Scotland still has some way to go to be a truly rights respecting country.

Public debate and interest in human rights is healthy for any modern democracy. Yet sometimes that debate can get distorted or conflated with other issues and commentary on social media can quickly become abusive. I prefer to focus on what we have in common. Every person in Scotland, from the day they are born, has legally enforceable human rights – the right to life, privacy, freedom of religion or belief, education, to name a few. The Commission will continue to play its part to help people in Scotland exercise their rights.

After four months in post, and listening to lots of people from all walks of life in Scotland, I think we are at a crossroads on human rights. The country has an ambitious agenda and wants to be a progressive force for good. Yet on the ground, people continue to face hardship, struggle to access public services, and are worried about the future. The cost of living crisis only increases those pressures.

For the year ahead, I hope the Commission can play its part to help protect the most vulnerable people, hold to account those in power when they fail to deliver, and raise the profile of human rights in Scotland.

In the Commission’s next Annual Report, I look forward to setting out how we have done just that and to marking Scotland’s progress towards becoming a world leader in protecting those precious rights that belong to us all.

Read the Annual Report in full.