Reflection on human rights, leadership and Scotland

Silhouette of people on beach with their hands in the air

Alan Miller, Visiting Professor, Law, University of Strathclyde

Professor Alan Miller
Visiting Professor, Strathclyde Law School
Special Envoy, Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions´╗┐

23 August 2018

This piece was published by the Scottish Human Rights Journal, Issue 82, Thomson Reuters publishers. It is posted here with the author's permission.

Professor Alan Miller is Chair of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership and previously held the elected positions of Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission and Chair of the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions. He is currently a Special Envoy of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions and also serves as an independent expert with the UNDP Crisis Response Unit. He is writing in a personal capacity.

I would like to share some reflections in these times of uncertainty from my current experiences as Chair of Scotland’s First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership and as a Special Envoy of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions

Constantly on my mind these past few months have been two key questions.

What is the relevance of human rights and what is leadership in human rights today?

The best single answer I have found to both questions may be that leadership is in fact making human rights more relevant in these uncertain times!

Please bear with me and let me try to explain myself.

In my international work as a Special Envoy in and around the UN, I am witness to an international rules-based order threatened by populist divisiveness and the public interest undermined by self-interest. Politics is becoming ever more volatile and discredited, the democratic space is shrinking in many countries, the media – whether social or mainstream - afford facts less credibility and the future is seen by many as uncertain at best.

‘Keeping the lights on’ and/or prioritising human rights?

Within the UN, there is a tension between those who prioritise “keeping the lights on” in these times and doing peace and development work and those who also prioritise human rights and leadership and re-affirm that peace, development and human rights are inter-dependent. This often plays out in the context of the extent to which member states should be held to account in terms of their human rights obligations.

And yet, less reported, there is a resilience everywhere. People want to improve their lives, to live with human dignity and build a better society and world fit for that purpose and for the generations to come.

History shows humanity’s need for a rules-based order

History has shown us that it is this mass of humanity which needs a rules-based order. This need for a rules-based order explains the inclusion of Article 28 - “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set out in the Declaration can be fully realised” - in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  This year we celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the UDHR and should reflect upon the fact that it was developed in the light of the experience of the Great Depression, the holocaust and two world wars.

Scotland values human rights 

As Chair of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, I find a Scotland swimming against this contemporary tide of rolling back on the central importance of human rights.

In talking to all kinds of people from different backgrounds there is a broad consensus on the need to improve people’s lives, to hold onto our values and to try to navigate a way forward in these unchartered waters swelling in and around Brexit.

Evidence of these shared values is not hard to find today and through Scotland’s twenty years journey of devolution.

There has been much progressive public interest legislation seeking to improve the lives of people in areas such as free personal carte for the elderly, the abolition of tuition fees, land reform and social security. The adoption by the Scottish Parliament of a newly refreshed National Performance Framework has, for the first time, an explicit human rights Outcome of “we will respect, protect and fulfil human rights and live free from discrimination”.

Many of our human rights derive from the EU and ECHR

Many of the everyday rights and social protections we enjoy are the result of guarantees from EU law for example in employment, consumer and environmental standards as well as data protection and equality and some are the result of guarantees from ECHR law, for example rights to free expression and assembly, privacy and a fair trial.

Brexit removes these guarantees from EU law and imperils those from ECHR law and as such presents a challenge across the UK in terms of who we are and what are our values.

Human rights in a post-Brexit Scotland?

So, the question presented by all of this is how does Scotland now navigate its way forward, holding on to these values and trying to continually improve people’s lives?

For example, how do we do our best to achieve the National Performance Framework Outcome of “we will protect, respect and fulfil human rights and live free from discrimination”?

In short, how does Scotland continue to lead in these times?

The answer, in my view, is that leadership is making human rights relevant by improving people’s lives through implementing all of the rights belonging to people as a result of their humanity. It is placing human dignity front and centre in all that we do.

A new Act of the Scottish Parliament establishing a contemporary and enabling framework of rights and accountability as both an anchor and compass for these times.  

Concretely, leadership today means establishing through an Act of the Scottish Parliament, following a public participatory process, a new and contemporary framework of rights and accountability fit for our times that recognises human dignity as the bedrock of our society.

This would be both an anchor and a compass in these uncertain times, build upon our broadly progressive journey under devolution and be above and beyond the political turbulence or colour of the government of the day.

It would set out for the first time in one place the rights belonging to everyone in Scotland and place duties on all public bodies to respect, protect and fulfil them.

All human rights belonging to everyone  

To make human rights more relevant this Act needs to build upon the UK Human Rights Act 1998 but go beyond its civil and political protections, as provided by the European human rights framework, to include economic, social and cultural rights drawn from the relevant UN human rights treaties as well as specified environmental rights.

So, the Act would include the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living, to adequate housing, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, to social security and would place an emphasis on the human rights of the most vulnerable. This would be part of making all human rights relevant to the everyday concerns of people.

Part of giving effect to these rights, and ensuring accountability, would be to build capacity so that our laws, policies and decisions, including budgetary priorities, consistently implement these rights and individuals and communities have everyday access to justice to hold all those exercising power to account.

Another part of giving effect to these rights would be to better understand if they were producing the desired results in everyday life. This means developing relevant indicators, including within the National Performance Framework, to measure how effectively rights are being implemented, to what extent they are actually improving people’s everyday lives and why and how further progress needs to be and could be made.

Through such an Act, Scotland would be committing itself as a country to take all necessary steps to use the maximum available resources to progressively realise the rights of everyone which is the legal obligation undertaken by countries to implement many of the economic, social and cultural rights under the relevant UN human rights treaties.

It would underpin Scotland’s commitment to inclusive and sustainable development through affirming that the purpose of economic development is the realisation of the human rights of everyone and improvement of the lives of all. This would be the most effective way for Scotland to align with and contribute towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Adopting such an enabling human rights framework would, then, anchor our values and help set and navigate Scotland’s future direction of travel. It would be above and beyond day-to-day uncertainties and politics and would hold whoever is in power to account and help achieve the progressive goals of the National Performance Framework already adopted by the Scottish Parliament.

A contemporary human rights framework as a signal, anchor and compass for Scotland

Of course, we cannot help but recognise the current limitations of what can be done through such an Act, given that many critical powers such as over equality, employment, the macro-economy and international relations decision-making, such as Brexit, do not lie with the Scottish Parliament.

More broadly, and whether remaining devolved within the UK or becoming independent, we are a small country and co-exist in an inter-dependent and globalised world.

However, we need to do all that we can with whatever powers we have, or come to have, and, whatever our constitutional status is or becomes, to inspire and influence others to travel with us on the same journey.

In this way Scotland would not only be signalling the kind of country we are and want to become but we would also be strengthening the very international rules-based order that is so necessary to realise the human potential of everyone in our broader world.

Tags: Brexit