What it’s like to lead Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution

The Scottish Parliament is currently recruiting for the new part-time Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. In this blog, the three members of the Commission talk about what it's like to lead Scotland's human rights watchdog.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission exists to serve the people of Scotland. The experiences we hear about daily tell us that many people are facing human rights challenges, worsened by the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

Established via an act of the Scottish Parliament in 2006, the Commission is Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution (NHRI). We have a general duty to promote awareness, understanding and respect for human rights in Scotland.

Sixteen years since the doors of the Commission first opened in 2008, human rights in Scotland exist within an increasingly turbulent political and economic environment. We believe it has never been more important to have a robust NHRI.  We are proud to serve the Commission, and we are now looking forward to an exceptional and talented individual joining as our Chair.

We also have crucial opportunities ahead via the Scottish Government’s proposed Human Rights Bill. This provides a unique moment to strengthen the human rights legal framework in Scotland, and to consider what is required, of the Commission and of all state actors, to fulfil a human rights culture beyond legislation.  It’s also likely that the legal powers and duties of the Commission will be increased, and our incoming Chair will have a huge opportunity to lead us through this period. They will ensure that we do everything possible to strengthen the Commission, ready for the next 16 years and beyond, and holding dear the principle of our independence from the state.  

This will help ensure we are a robust, independent watchdog, with the necessary powers and resources to hold duty bearers to account where human rights are at risk in Scotland.

As Members of the Commission, we share the responsibility of ensuring that the Commission operates effectively as an independent public body answerable to the Scottish Parliament, and as an NHRI. As an NHRI the Commission must satisfy the United Nations Paris Principles and submit to periodic re-accreditation. It must also align in its values and practice with international human rights standards, particularly those mentioned in its founding law, the Scottish Commission for Human Rights Act 2006.

As a Commission we have reflected this year on renewing the purpose, priorities, visibility and impact of the organisation. Central to this is our mandate as a public body tasked with protecting and promoting human rights in Scotland.

A recent Governance Review, which we instructed in February 2023, found that the organisation is on a positive trajectory, and is making progress on all areas. The Chair will support the Commission as it continues to move forward to fulfil these requirements, and be ready for further growth and development. The Commission appointed its first Executive Director in 2023, providing stability to governance and operations, and the Chair will work closely with that post, as we have over this interim period.

We pay tribute to and sincerely offer our thanks to staff for their contribution to the SHRC, particularly over this past 12 months of transition. We will build on their endeavour through this next phase.

No two days are the same, and we often have to consider issues which are complex and engage in robust debate, ensuring that the Commission reflects and considers all human rights standards at stake.  That is why United Nations standards clarify that we must be a multi-member Commission – to ensure pluralism in our consideration of issues.  Our new Chair will help us to navigate that, as all NHRIs must do.  Together, the Commission is ready to face the opportunities ahead. We bear witness to people’s daily experiences, work with others, and use our powers to help make rights real for all in Scotland.  We are looking forward to welcoming our next Chair, and to working with them to oversee the delivery of work which protects and promotes the human rights of everyone in Scotland.

Jim Farish, Member, Scottish Human Rights Commission

Shelley Gray, Member, Scottish Human Rights Commission

Claire Methven O’Brien, Member, Scottish Human Rights Commission