Testing the system: are economic, social and cultural rights working for people in Scotland?

This week starts the process of review of how well the UK is complying with international human rights standards in areas such as housing, healthcare and education. Here, our Policy and International Officer, Eilidh Dickson, explains how we’re taking part and what the review means for Scotland.

When the UK Government signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), it accepted it has a duty to protect, respect and fulfil the rights the treaty recognises, for example, the right to an adequate standard of living, to education and the highest attainable standard of health.

The treaty sets out these standards and establishes a monitoring mechanism, known as treaty body review, where a country’s record is scrutinised by an expert United Nations Committee (the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, or CESCR).

This review process is an essential aspect of accountability in the international system. The UK - including the Scottish Government and other public bodies – has a responsibility in international human rights law to outline areas of progress or lack of progress and to respond to questions from the Committee.

Importantly, the Committee also hears from other experts to inform its scrutiny, such as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and civil society campaigners.

The Commission, as Scotland’s NHRI, has a critical role in providing additional information and evidence to help the Committee’s review be as informed and fair as possible. 

Our report, published last month, reflects our mandate to protect and promote human rights in Scotland by highlighting areas of concern – including where the most basic levels of the rights protected by the treaty, known as ‘minimum core’ might be at risk.

A number of Scottish Third Sector organisations have also published reports, to help inform the Committee’s process. You can read them via the links below.

Step by step scrutiny

The ICESCR review works on a cyclical approach – every four to five years, every country that has signed up to the treaty is reviewed.

The first stage is the publication by the state of a report setting out changes since the previous cycle ended.

Next, NHRIs and civil society campaigners, publish their own reports.

The Committee members then meet in person, at the United Nations in Geneva, to consider what they have heard and produce a list of questions for the state government to answer. This meeting is part of what is known as a Pre-Sessional Working Group (PSWG) and, here, the Committee meets with the NHRIs and civil society to ask us about our evidence.

Scotland in the spotlight

Since the end of the last ICESCR review in 2016, the UK has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, cost of living crisis and legal changes following Brexit.

There’ve also been major international issues such as rising energy costs and the impact of climate change on food security and global inequalities, especially with vulnerable groups.

The Commission’s report warns the UN CESCR Committee that these issues, especially over the past 12 months, are putting people’s rights at risk. For example, soaring housing costs are making people more vulnerable to homelessness and the cost of basic essentials such as food, heating or transportation, is jeopardising people’s rights to an adequate standard of living.

We also want the Committee to ask the UK Government for more information about out other priority concerns, such as variable access to healthcare across Scotland, rising poverty rates, the slow roll out of social security and the shortage of data we all need to properly monitor the protection of economic, social and cultural rights.

We want to make sure the Committee’s approach reflects the nuances of devolution, and the different responsibilities and levers used by the UK and Scottish Governments to protect human rights.

This means it’s far more likely to be a robust and comprehensive review, leaving us with credible and effective recommendations from the highest level of UN expertise on economic, social and cultural rights.

As Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution, it’s our job to support the scrutiny process, share information to support the review and make sure it’s as comprehensive as possible. 

This is just the beginning of the process which will set out the structure of the ICESCR review. Alongside our own role, we will continue to support individuals and civil society to share evidence or insights with the Committee, through the whole process.

Third Sector submissions to the CESCR Committee