International Human Rights Day 2016

This article was first published in Common Space on 5 December.

Judith Robertson is Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. Writing to mark International Human Rights Day 2016, she reflects on the range of threats and opportunities facing human rights in Scotland today.

On Saturday 10 December, the world marks Human Rights Day - the 68th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the United Nations in 1948, this landmark document affirms the values and principles of equality and respect for all. It is the foundation for an evolving system of international human rights laws and standards.

This year, Human Rights Day comes at an important time for human rights in Scotland.

Current legal protections for human rights are at risk as a result of Brexit, the much talked of repeal of the Human Rights Act, and the terms of the debate which wilfully and systematically attempts to draw artificial and dangerous dividing lines between those who do and don’t “deserve” rights. This public, and at times political, debate unhelpfully polarises and oversimplifies how rights can, should and must be realised by government.

The recent referendum on membership of the European Union has shone a light on issues of inequality, poverty, exclusion, discrimination and xenophobia. We need to challenge this. We need to send out a message of zero tolerance to these violations, and also zero tolerance of the social and economic conditions that have made it possible for these sentiments and attitudes to take root and flourish.

We all have the right to life freedom from violence and degrading treatment, freedom from discrimination, freedom from fear and freedom from want. We have the right to an adequate standard of living, to a safe home and to support for good physical and mental health. We also have the right to good information and good information about our rights. We need to talk about these rights and to hold our public authorities to account for delivering on these rights. But most importantly we need to reach into communities where these rights are not being realised and empower people to lay claim to something more hopeful, more positive and creative.

Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP) is one of the ways in which we are starting to do this. SNAP is an important vehicle for collaboration and progress between public bodies, civil society, the Commission and Scottish Government. Now entering its fourth year, and recognised as an example of best practice internationally, key projects have included Housing Rights in Practice, a partnership to empower people living in Leith to use human rights to achieve improvements in their housing conditions.

We can also work with political parties and governments in Holyrood and Westminster to strengthen our rights and support our citizens. The Commission’s latest report to the United Nations on progress and gaps with human rights in Scotland sets out 24 recommendations for changes that can and should be implemented.

For example, there is significant opportunity in Scotland to advance human rights for all by making all international human rights treaties enforceable in domestic law. The Human Rights Act does not, for example, offer domestic legal protection for the rights that are contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – rights like the right to healthcare and an adequate standard of living.

We welcome the First Minister’s commitment to exploring further incorporation of rights into law in a speech to mark Human Rights Day last year. The Commission will continue to work in support of the Scottish Government’s delivery of their manifesto commitment to engage in a collaborative process with people across Scotland to “advise on the guaranteed protections we should seek to enshrine in law”.  

Opportunities for progress also exist in relation to specific policy areas. Social security, for example, is a human right protected by a solid body of international legal standards that Scotland is signed up to. The Commission believes the redesign of a social security system for Scotland is a perfect opportunity to implement this right in practice. Similarly, there is significant scope to look at how the Scottish Parliament’s new powers in relation to taxation can be used to better protect and realise human rights.

So, while we must be alive to threats to the protection for all of our rights, we must also continue to advance, pushing for further, continued progress towards realising the values and principles set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty-eight years ago.