What next for upholding human rights in Scotland?

This year the Commission welcomed its first Executive Director, Jan Savage.  Here, Jan looks at the opportunities ahead to make rights real for everyone in Scotland.

Change is the one thing that is constant, or so the saying goes. Individuals, circumstances, communities, jobs and politics, all evolve.  And nowhere is that more relevant than for the Scottish Human Rights Commission in 2023.

Scotland is a very different place than when the Commission was established by an Act of Parliament in 2006. Not least, we’ve seen an increasingly divergent human rights agenda at Westminster and Holyrood, including UK Government proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act, the very foundation through which all our rights are protected in law. 

It’s also true that, whilst Scotland has enjoyed a strong human rights narrative in policy and legislation since 2006, the impact hasn’t necessarily been felt in progressive outcomes in people’s lives. For the Commission, there simply isn’t enough objective data available to assess human rights progress properly – and that is a concern.

But what is available – in plentiful supply – is what we see in our communities.  It is the lived experience of rights holders, as evidenced by brave human rights defenders, the media, and civil society reports, which strongly suggests a significant gap between warm words of policy intent and the cold harsh experience of reality.  Even more worryingly, we see a significant gap in accountability – and that’s something the Commission is keen to address.   

Holding power to account

Currently, there’s a movement to establish a series of new public bodies (Commissions and/or Commissioners) in Scotland to uphold the rights of particular groups of people. Rights holders and civil society are absolutely correct to call out where access to justice routes are not clear or effective.  This movement therefore should be seen as a positive challenge to current accountability mechanisms and the routes through which individuals can access justice. The Commission fully intends to be part of that conversation.

Additionally, we must look to ourselves. The Commission is the only human rights body in the UK without the power to raise legal proceedings with duty bearers or provide advice to individuals.   

Our mandate does grant us some powers to intervene in legal cases, conduct inquiries, inspect places of detention, and provide advice on human rights in Scotland across every human rights treaty. But some of these powers have major restrictions. And in reality, we’re a small team with limited resources – but with limitless ambition to serve rights holders in Scotland.

Put simply, there is more we could do – with the powers and people to do it.

Strengthening human rights law

The Commission has called for the strengthening of human rights laws in Scotland for more than a decade. As a member of the National Taskforce on Human Rights Leadership, we called for a new Human Rights Bill to incorporate into Scots Law the rights found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD); and for further protections for older persons and LGBT+ people.

The Scottish Government is due to consult on its new Human Rights Bill for Scotland shortly. This moment presents the rare opportunity to consider how Scotland may reshape the mandate, powers and function of its Human Rights Commission too.

Ultimately, that is a  decision for Parliament.  But we are clear that we are ready and willing to step up to the challenge, and explore through national conversation the systems, powers and processes that are needed to truly make rights real.

Future focus

In 2023-2024, the Commission is focusing on the development of the new Human Rights Bill as it progresses through the consultation stage and into the Scottish Parliament.

We will also engage with calls for new Commissioners to help us understand what this tells us about the accountability gap – we’ll talk to civil society and MSPs to understand what opportunities a new Human Rights Bill for Scotland offers to increase the powers needed for a stronger Commission. 

Finally, we’ll continue to bear witness and to report on areas of concern, taking an evidence-based approach.  We  have identified four key areas of concern which we will spotlight this year.  They are:

  • Access to Justice
  • Human rights of people held in detention and prison, with a focus on access to mental health support
  • Human rights of people with learning disabilities and autism detained in hospital 
  • Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of people in the Highlands and Islands

Your Scottish Human Rights Commission

We will also be developing the Commission’s fifth Strategic Plan, which must be laid before Parliament in early 2024. To inform this, the Commission will be visiting communities across Scotland to look at human rights issues at a local level and to gather evidence to guide our areas of focus.

If you would like more information on any of these areas, or if you have suggestions about issues we should know about, please contact us: hello@scottishhumanrights.com

About the author

Jan Savage is Executive Director of the Scottish Human Right Commission, leading and shaping the delivery of operational and strategic priorities. Jan joined the Commission following a 20 year career in civil society.  She has a wealth of experience in executive leadership, corporate governance, human rights, advocacy and participation work, with a particular focus on human-rights based campaigns to achieve real change.

About the Scottish Human Rights Commission

The Scottish Human Rights Commission is an independent public body, accountable to the people of Scotland through the Scottish Parliament, and accredited as an A Status National Human Rights Institution within the United Nations System. The Commission has a general duty to promote awareness, understanding and respect for all human rights – economic, social, cultural, civil and political – to everyone, everywhere in Scotland, and to encourage best practice in relation to human rights. Our full duties and powers are set out in the Scottish Commission for Human Rights Act 2006.