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Into 2019: Broadening Human Rights Horizons and Ambitions

Carole Ewart surveys the terrain for prospect of advance in 2019

I expect the reputation of human rights as a delivery framework for social and economic fairness to be significantly enhanced in 2019 as 47 recommendations are rolled out from reports of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee at the Scottish Parliament and from the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership.  We have waited 21 years for human rights to be explicitly mainstreamed across public services and understood as applying to us all equally.  Now we all must be vigilant to ensure these roadmaps for change are delivered and sustained.

The Labour Government elected in 1997 delivered a human rights legal framework through the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998 which gave domestic effect to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).  Importantly, the ECHR is not tainted by Brexit as it is a treaty of the Council of Europe.  Both UK Acts of Parliament develop and add to the layers of protection already provided by the EU, as well as the UN whose treaties provide extensive rights.  A favourite of mine is the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which includes the right to an adequate standard of living, to food, clothing, housing, fair work conditions and adequate remuneration.  However, political complacency abounded after 1998 as saying ‘let it be so’ did not deliver the seismic cultural and operational shift needed across the public, private and third sectors.  Unsurprisingly to many of us not much changed and the power of human rights continued to be overlooked as well as becoming a ‘bete noire’ to the Tory right which realised that giving people minimum rights meant they could not be economically exploited and socially disadvantaged.  Human rights are, after all, about enabling human beings to thrive not just ‘scraping by’.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Parliament intake from 2003 – 2007 [1], fell into the trap of viewing human rights and their enforcement as a problem for the State.  MSPs specifically banned the newly created Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) from undertaking, advising or assisting people to bring human rights cases.  Failing to provide a realistic threat of publicly funded test cases by an expert body such as on health and housing provision, enabled complacency.  Now our norm is ‘pockets of good practice’ and the benevolence of staff which of course can lead to arbitrariness.  When UNISON Scotland asked its members what the problem was, they advised “that they don’t generally operate in a human rights culture” [2].

The report ‘Recommendations for a new human rights framework to improve people’s lives’ produced by the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership makes seven recommendations and the context and detail runs to 79 pages. Published in December 2018 [3], the First Minister immediately committed to set up a National Task Force to deliver on the recommendations [4].  Nicola Sturgeon’s aspiration for the whole of her Government is to ‘ensure Scotland is an international leader in building a rights-based society’.  If followed through, this is a game changer and an admission that good intentions, laws on rights and the £10m spend on the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s work has not achieved the dramatic change in outcomes for people.

The seven recommendations include: passing an Act which provides human rights leadership, capacity-building to enable effective implementation of the Act to improve people’s lives, a Scottish Government ‘National Mechanism for Monitoring, Reporting and Implementation of Human Rights’ and development of ‘human rights-based indicators’ for Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF).

In November 2018 ‘Getting Rights Right: Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament’ was published by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee.   Its 40 recommendations, to be delivered over a nine-year timeframe, followed an inquiry which was influenced by extensive oral and written evidence as well as overseas visits and informed opinion from the UN. The report recognises that a human rights culture, human rights knowledge, human rights practice, human rights monitoring and human rights law all need to be in place as it is the sum of the parts that will deliver impact rather than a single strand of activity. The recommendations are targeted at the Parliament itself such as developing scrutiny of human rights through the Scottish budget process and investigating a strengthening the SHRC’s powers.  Recommendations for the Scottish Government include the production of an annual ‘human rights report’ for the Committee to scrutinise and to fund civic society to scrutinise compliance with UN ratified treaties in devolved and reserved matters.  Recommendations for the SHRC include ‘developing a parliamentary engagement plan’ for Scotland’s National Action Plan on Human Rights’.[5]

2019 will herald a period of realism, addressing the barriers to mainstreaming human rights across publicly funded services which have built up over the last twenty years. Now we need to see clear signs of a meaningful rights respecting strategy designed to achieve genuine social and economic change.  The two reports require people and organisations to rise to the challenge of leading change, in the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government, the SHRC.  That leadership will individually and collectively impact on the public services, and on those delivering services of a public nature including the private sector eg in procurement.  Key to progress are duty bearers understanding their obligations, which extend to preventative as well as enforcement measures, and rights holders being able to know and assert their rights effectively.  Politicians of all parties can lead on delivery by ensuring the recommendations are acted upon and we can lead too, by holding politicians to account. I hope you agree to be a Human Rights Leader!

Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant and serves on the Project Board of the Jimmy Reid Foundation.

[1] See Scottish Parliament for more information

[2] Response of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland To ‘Scottish Independence Bill: A consultation on an interim constitution for Scotland’, October 2014

[3] Available on the Advisory Group’s designated website

[4] See press release of 10th December 2018 at

[5] Available on Committee website at