Human Rights Leadership in Scotland

A statue of Lady Justice holding scales

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´╗┐

22 February 2018

This piece was published by the Scottish Human Rights Journal, Issue 80, February 2018, 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.

Human rights leadership is needed more than ever in these times of uncertainty.

The test for all of us who advocate for progress and a better world is to be both ambitious for and relevant to the everyday needs of our communities.

An initiative just underway in Scotland is facing this test. The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership has just been established “to lead a participatory process to make recommendations on how Scotland can continue to lead by example in human rights, including economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.”

For the past 20 years Scotland’s constitutional framework for human rights has rested on the twin pillars of those civil and political rights guaranteed by membership of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Brexit removes the former and imperils the latter.

The Advisory Group’s approach is to be influenced by three guiding principles of “non-regression” from such existing rights, “not being left behind” progressive European developments in rights and of Scotland “taking a lead”.

Scotland’s “taking a lead” is to include consideration of the potential effects of incorporating UN human rights treaties into domestic law and the means by which this might in practice be undertaken. Such treaties, which have been ratified by the United Kingdom, are already part of the international legal obligations referred to within the Scotland Act 1998 but the Advisory Group will explore how such obligations may be given further effect in law, policy and practice within Scotland.

This has presented itself as the next potential step in Scotland’s human rights journey irrespective of Brexit.

This is because it could provide constitutional status to not only civil and political rights provided by the EU and ECHR – for example, right to free speech, privacy and a fair trial -  but the broader range of economic, social and cultural as well as environmental rights. These could include the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and the rights to education and adequate housing as well as giving priority to those most at risk of being left behind including women, children, those with physical or mental disabilities and minority ethnic communities.

Brexit, as well as the continuing austerity, has given a renewed impetus to exploration of this next potential step to bring Scotland into line with best international practice.

The Advisory Group is also mandated to consider how best to protect and promote this full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural as well as environmental rights across the full range of potential post-Brexit scenarios.

A participatory process is to be led by the Advisory Group so as to ground its work in the realities of everyday life. This is to include a wider Reference Group drawn from the breadth of civil society and including those individuals with direct living experience of the lack of enjoyment of human rights. There will also be consultations with the Parliament, the political parties and both the public and private sectors.

Of course, all of this work cannot be carried out in isolation from what is taking place in the rest of the UK, Europe and globally.  There is much good practice to be learned from as well as negative influences to be addressed.

Although a small country there is already much in Scotland that the Advisory Group can build upon. There is opportunity for real progress. For example, both the Parliament and Government are broadly supportive of human rights, the public has an appetite for economic and social rights, civil society is increasingly adopting a human rights-based approach and there is a respected national human rights institution.

If the work of the Advisory Group is successful it could have a relevance beyond Scotland representing as it would the practical reaffirmation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the year of its 70th anniversary and when it is under unprecedented pressure.

Success would be to demonstrate what progress looks like and the steps to be taken to secure such progress. It would be to meet the test of combining ambition for and relevance to the broad public and particularly those most at risk of being left behind. This is the challenge which I take up with relish as the Chair of the Advisory Group.

Tags: Brexit