Painting a picture of a rights based Scotland


To mark International Human Rights Day on 10 December, Judith Robertson, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, paints a picture of a future Scotland with human rights at its heart. This article was first published in The National Extra

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Wouldn’t we all like to live in a Scotland where that’s true?

These powerful words come from Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They sum up ‘equality’ – the theme this year for International Human Rights Day on Friday 10 December.

At the Scottish Human Rights Commission, we’re marking this day by exploring our vision of a truly rights based Scotland.

That would mean living in a society delivering progressive improvements to all our rights – to health, care and housing, in our family and cultural lives, in education and employment. A society that fully protects our right to a healthy environment.

Living in a country  where those whose rights are most at risk are listened to – and valued on an equal footing with professional views – in decisions about law and policy.

And all that  underpinned by a legal framework that obliges those in power to act to respect, protect and fulfil all our rights.

In this society, all decisions, policies and budget choices are made through a human rights lens.

For example, in a rights based Scotland, our response and recovery to COVID-19 will ask all these questions:

Which rights are at stake? Are measures strictly necessary, proportionate and time-bound? Are people in vulnerable circumstances being put at risk? Is our Government raising the income it needs to fund our recovery with a rights-based tax system that fights inequality?

The good news is that 2021 saw Scotland take a landmark step towards becoming this kind of society.

In March, the Scottish Government announced it will begin work on a new Human Rights Bill incorporating four international human rights treaties directly into Scots law: those covering economic, social and cultural rights, disabled people’s rights, rights of black and ethnic minority people, and women’s rights. The Bill will also include a right to a healthy environment, rights of older people and rights of LGBTI people.

It means public bodies and others will have duties to uphold these rights and they will be enforceable in Scottish courts.

These commitments directly connect people’s everyday lives in Scotland to international legal obligations. The new Bill, to be introduced in this session of the Scottish Parliament, should ensure that human rights are embedded into decision making in areas such as health and social care, housing, food and social security. Crucially, it should secure better access to justice when things go wrong.

Meanwhile, concerning proposals to “overhaul” the Human Rights Act are being mooted by the UK Government.

The Human Rights Act is the key existing human rights law that protects our rights. Since it came into force in October 2000, the Act has helped drive positive change in important ways. These include that disabled people and their families have a right to have a say in decisions about their care, and that hospital patients at risk of suicide have a right to be protected by the hospital caring for them.

In our view, the Act works well. Despite multiple proposals and reviews over the past decade, we do not believe any case for change has been made. The Commission, like many others, will resist any regressive attempts to water down the Act.

So, this International Human Rights Day, let’s keep our eyes on the vision of a rights-based Scotland. A place where everyone’s voice matters. Where those in power are held accountable for their obligations. And where our rights are protected by strong, effective laws that we can all use when we need to.