Tomorrow marks the 68th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In honour of this and the work of activists around the world, the day is celebrated as International Human Rights Day.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the document’s drafting committee, famously said:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.”
Saturday will also be the end of SCVOs Right Approach campaign and, in our small way, we have tried to illuminate small but significant fights for human rights in our communities. Starting on 29 August, the campaign has celebrated and promoted charities and voluntary organisations using human rights on a daily, local basis.
With blogs, podcasts, quotes and a resource bank, the campaign has shown how many in our sector are using the language of rights to fight for justice across a whole range of issues, from food security to social care. Through involving marginalised groups in important decisions, to holding decision makers to account to international law and co-producing public body delivery programmes, many in our sector are ensuring rights are upheld.
The campaign has taken place, I believe, against a backdrop of a steady increase in the use of human rights language and approaches across Scotland. When I started working for the Poverty Truth Commission in 2012, it sometimes felt that we were a lone voice calling for those with direct experience of poverty to be involved in decision making.
There has been steady progress towards human rights in Scotland, in no small measure brought about by our sector
I found very well intentioned individuals from both the public and the third sector would often talk in terms of meeting needs to ensure everyone was provided for. This might solve the problem today, but it is too dependent on the current political climate for sustainability and does not have the long lasting guarantee of a human rights based approach.
Equally as important, it is only through a rights based approach that individuals can claim their rights and feel empowered. I have seen the positive transformative impact of meaningfully involving people, going far beyond the immediate issue in question.
There has undoubtedly been steady progress towards human rights in recent years in Scotland, and this has in no small measure been brought about by our sector.
On Wednesday night, the Scottish Human Rights Commission held a parliamentary reception on ‘Building a Human Rights Culture for Scotland’s Future’. Ken Macintosh, Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament, spoke and outlined the changing position of human rights since the parliament was convened in 1999. He argued that human rights have become more contentious in political discourse because of their growing importance.
Whilst it is good to hear this, you cannot look past the flipside of the looming threats the increasing politicalisation of human rights brings. Brexit and the lingering repeal of the Human Rights Act are clearly two major challenges for the new year. However, our human rights are under threat in many other, more subtle ways. A growing differentiation of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ groups, most notably at the core of the welfare changes, seems to be coming more prominent, stretching into immigration policy and other areas.
It is clear that for 2017 we cannot simply sit back on some good progress towards human rights. We need to continue to develop not only our own knowledge and use of human rights, but push the Scottish Government to enhance theirs.
The new Social Security Agency will be a clear marker in this regard of things to come. The Government is so far talking in positive abstract principles of dignity and respect. But it will be in the many small, local battles which will need to be won if we are to realise a just system.