Human rights give us all a chance to build a better world

A journey that started at school led student Michael Heffernan to a leadership role at the heart of Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights. Here he describes the highs and lows of trying to put rights into action.

When I think of human rights, I think of opportunity.

For me, rights are the construct which ensures protections people need are at the heart of society, from government to beyond.

This means we should have the chance to pursue a better society, at least in theory, without leaving anyone out. But this isn’t how I’ve always seen human rights!

My first introduction (to my memory, anyway) was in early High School. I remember being told about them around my rights and responsibilities as a UK citizen. Yet, while I learned about rights, I am not sure I truly understood them.

Bringing rights to life

My first real dip into the world of human rights didn’t happen till much later.

It started with the ‘Future Fridays’ programme in North Lanarkshire, where secondary school students can spend Friday afternoons doing activities like taking a college course or gaining work experience.  

Through this, I joined the Make It Right project, working on a communications campaign to raise awareness of children’s rights and mark the expected incorporation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, into Scots Law.

While the incorporation was delayed, thankfully the campaign was not. Each advert, poster and key message was jointly created by young people and adults, making it a rather unique piece of co-production and place to learn.

Making a difference

Since then, I’ve continued my work on human rights by joining Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP) Leadership Panel. At 17 years old, I’m the Panel’s youngest member, and it’s truly been a whirlwind adventure, working on all sorts, from mental health to education and beyond.

It wasn’t until I joined the Leadership Panel that I truly gained an understanding of what human rights are and what they mean to me.

I still remember the early barrage of documents and inaccessible language – on a page filled with acronyms, from the basic SG (Scottish Government) to the unexplained NACWG (National Advisory Council for Women and Girls), it made no sense!

Luckily for me, I had the help of fellow panel members and the awesome SNAP Secretariat Lead to guide me, something I have talked about on the SNAP website.

I do wonder how it would’ve turned out for someone without access to the right support. For example, I’m a student who doesn’t need to work, so I can afford to spend a day in a meeting. Even simple things like shortening meeting lengths can make participation more realistic for many.  

Not everything is rosy

Working with human rights is not all positive. There simply hasn’t been enough resourcing over the last decade to support civil society. This has undoubtedly impacted on organisations’ ability to contribute to exciting things like SNAP.

The delays to legislative changes that would allow people to access to their rights, such as the new Scottish Human Rights Bill, have understandably demoralised those who most need the protections. And at a UK-level, the Government’s attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act could even see the UK 'in breach of its international obligations’ should it become law, according to human rights campaigners.

So, as I said at the beginning, human rights are an opportunity – but one that often falls short. Our inalienable rights let us dream of a better world though. And in tough times, they strengthen our ability to defend them, against people who would prefer to make rights history.

In 2022, I think Scotland is doing fine on human rights, regardless of all the rhetoric saying we are amazing or terrible. On the ground, the truth is much more mundane – there’s a lot to be proud of yet so much more to do!