Engagement Officer Allan Young says that despite good progress, human rights remain under threat – and we all need to protect them.
Seventy years ago the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was accepted by the United Nations General Assembly. Since then, despite many setbacks, great strides have been made both at home and abroad in the cause of human rights. From decriminalising homosexuality to preventing imprisonment without charge, human rights protection has fundamentally changed post-war Britain to create a safer, more open and inclusive society for all of us. For more examples, check out Rights Info.
To mark 70 years, the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) is hosting a series of workshops across the UK and will be in Edinburgh this Friday. There is still time toregister for their event, which will celebrate the history of human rights before discussing current challenges and opportunities.
In many ways human rights have become enshrined in the daily workings of many of our institutions, from the police to our local councils. However, that is not to say that the future looks plain-sailing. Brexit poses a clear threat to human rights. Not only will rights protections be removed, but it could well pave the way for the replacement of the 1998 Human Rights Act with a weaker British Bill of Rights.
Concerned about this prospect, leading voices across Scottish civil society came together recently to launch the Scotland Declaration on Human Rights. Not only did this document call for no loss of current rights, but also for continued strengthening of our human rights protection, and for increased public understanding and participation.
The rhetoric used by politicians at Holyrood is, thankfully, far less toxic on human rights than that at Westminster. Fundamental to their inception, human rights are an important part of the work of both the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. That is in large part due to the endless campaigning of charities and campaign organisations.
Since the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999, it has produced several notable pieces of human rights legislation, such as that on housing. At the 2017 Gathering conference the First Minister endorsed SCVOs #RightApproach campaign, promoting human rights-based approaches in the third sector. A consultation from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee closed last week, calling for evidence on the Parliament’s human rights performance, providing a chance to develop a stronger human rights culture.
However this sits alongside continued serious challenges around how human rights are treated in Scotland. An acute recent example of this was with the Social Security Bill and the refusal of the Scottish Government to include an amendment on placing a ‘due regard’ duty. This change, proposed by the Scottish Human Rights Commission and supported by a wide range of charities, would have required all Scottish Ministers and public authorities to follow the internationally established right to social security when implementing the devolved social security powers.
The duty would also have meant that courts and tribunals would be required to take full account of this right when making decisions regarding social security. These kinds of checks and balances are standard practice for any piece of human rights legislation but, sadly, the Scottish Government refused to include them, despite speaking in favour of the human right to social security.
This somewhat paradoxical position is perhaps indicative of both the great progress made, and the significant distance yet to travel, since the universal declaration. We should recognise and celebrate that human rights are now largely considered positively by Scottish politicians. But we should also be clear that saying you support human rights is not the same as actively breaking down the barriers which prohibit their realisation in practice.
Despite this setback, campaigners across the sector need to be looking forward, not back. We can’t change the highs and lows of the past 70 years, but we can make our mark in the present and stand up for human rights.