Speaking up for Scotland at the United Nations

Eilidh Dickson, the Commission's Policy and International Officer, writes about our work raising awareness of Scottish human rights issues with a wide, global audience.

This week, a small team from the Commission is at the United Nations in Geneva to raise some of our key concerns about human rights in Scotland.

We’ll be taking part in a series of events called the “Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Pre-Sessions” – a chance to talk about Scotland’s performance on human rights with partners from around the world, including other National Human Rights Institutions like us (NHRIs) and non-government, not-for-profit organisations (NGOs) from the UK.

After two years in lockdown, it’s a great opportunity to strengthen our ties with the international human rights community and talk to them about our work in Scotland.

It’s also a vital part of preparing for the final UPR review in November this year, when the whole of the UK will be assessed on its human rights performance.

How UPR works

UPR is a unique peer-review process run by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Every five years, each UN Member State gets reviewed, and the UK is about to go through this process for the fourth time.

The UPR review consists of a written report from the state concerned; a report from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva; evidence submitted by NGOs, grassroots organisations, research groups and NHRIs in the country under review and finally a report made up of all the evidence the OHCHR gathers from other UN bodies.

We’ve been feeding into this process to make sure that rights concerns in Scotland are highlighted. Our recent UPR submission, which we also describe as Scotland’s Human Rights Report Card, was published earlier this year.

Using these reports, representatives from countries on the UNHRC and others who want to be part of the review, come together to ask questions, make recommendations and hear from the state under review at an “Interactive Dialogue”.

The UK will participate in an Interactive Dialogue in November 2022. Because UPR is a peer-to-peer process, the only people who can speak in this session are representatives of national governments, although in the UK’s case, typically civil servants from the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive will be part of the UK delegation. NGOs and NHRIs (such as the Commission) cannot participate at this stage.

Once the Interactive Dialogue is finished, a report with recommendations for action from all the states who took part is published and the UK is given time to respond.

The UK then reviews the recommendations and either “accepts” or “notes” each one.

For and against UPR

The UPR process has its critics, some of whom argue a state-led process is too political and lacks real accountability or expert scrutiny.

However, others defend it, pointing out that an explicitly state-led process respects state sovereignty, encourages everyone to take part and allows for collaborating and learning between countries. The UPR also shines a spotlight on a country’s record and can be a useful catalyst in embarrassing governments and encouraging change.

 Additionally, the peer process is balanced out by the fact that once a state signs up to international treaties, the way it fulfils those rights is monitored by different and more detailed UN systems.

UPR also allows for all human rights issues to be looked at, for example, states will often recommend to one another that they sign and ratify international human rights conventions.

In the third cycle, several states recommended the UK ratify the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against women; a move that women’s and human rights organisations in the UK had been calling for. Having international support for these calls added further weight to the demand and the UK ultimately completed its ratification of the convention in July 2022.

Making Scotland’s voice heard 

Of course, as a state-led process, it is vital that we claim a role for experts from inside the UK. We are in Geneva to meet with a range of organisations who work there and know the UPR system inside out; to speak to diplomats at the Palais des Nations – the UN headquarters in Europe where most human rights work happens – and to meet with the permanent diplomatic missions in the city, the offices of national governments who will be participating in the UPR.

The “pre-sessions”, which run from Monday to Wednesday, bring together all the states under review in November, stakeholders from NHRIs and NGOs, and UN diplomats, giving us a chance to answer their questions and give them our evidence and information about what’s actually happening on the ground in Scotland.

Issues we’ll be spotlighting include:

  • The cost of living crisis
  • Plans to incorporate international human rights law into domestic law
  • The Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on exclusion and marginalisation for many
  • Poor conditions in Scottish detention facilities
  • The UK Government’s plans to repeal and replace the Human Rights Act.

When we do this, we’ll be asking representatives from around the world and those who work with them to make sure Scotland’s voice is heard on the international stage.

All of this is vital if we are to hold the Scottish and UK Government to account at home. International scrutiny of their actions and support for the work of human rights advocates in Scotland can be a powerful way to amplify our concerns.

We’ll be keeping you informed about our work in Geneva, including who we’re meeting with and the issues we’re raising, on our social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And you can find our more  on our UPR website page.