How can Scotland be a leader in human rights?

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In November 2018, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee published their inquiry report Getting Rights Right: Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament. They called on the Scottish Parliament to be an international leader in human rights.

In December 2018, the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership recommended legislation to create a new human rights framework to improve people’s lives.

Both reports were welcomed at the Human Rights Take Over! event held in the Scottish Parliament to celebrate International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2018.

Why is this happening and what does it all mean?

There has been a growing international consensus that parliaments must take a more active role in the promotion and protection of human rights. Parliaments have a central role as ‘guarantors’ of human rights, because they have the power to legislate, hold national debates, and scrutinise the work of government.

For background, see the work of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the Commonwealth.

Equalities and Human Rights Committee: inquiry on Human Rights and the Scottish Parliament

The remit of the Equalities Committee was extended to include human rights, in September 2016. Before this, the subject matter of human rights came under the remit of the Justice Committee.

At the same time, the Committee were aware that the human rights landscape was changing because of:

  • Brexit
  • a proposal for the UK to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights
  • a proposal to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a British Bill of Rights.

In October 2016, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and civic society groups called on the Scottish Parliament to become a human rights ‘guarantor’ in their responses to the Commission on Parliamentary Reform.

Taking all this into account, the Committee saw this inquiry as an opportunity for the Scottish Parliament to strengthen its approach to human rights. This would include developing a framework to hold the Scottish Government to account for how it implements international human rights obligations.

The inquiry had two phases:

  • Phase 1 – the Committee sought written briefings on the scrutiny of human rights in other legislatures in the UK. It also looked at international comparisons of best practice in the monitoring and scrutiny of human rights.
  • Phase 2 – the Committee sought views from the people of Scotland and interested groups. Representations were made through written submissions, oral evidence to the Committee, and focus groups of people with lived experience. The views of other Scottish Parliamentary Committees were also sought.

The Committee made 40 recommendations. Most of these are to be taken forward by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee itself, but there are also recommendations to the Scottish Parliament, and to the Scottish Government.

The recommendations include:

  • For the Equalities and Human Rights Committee:
    • Develop a human rights action plan for the Scottish Parliament, and monitor its development.
  • For the Scottish Government:
    • Monitor European human rights after Brexit.
    • Provide better information on the impact of legislation on human rights.
    • Create a system for international treaty monitoring.
  • For the Scottish Parliament:
    • Develop a human rights-based approach to all its work.
    • Improve the human rights capacity of MSPs and staff.
    • Monitor international human rights treaties.
    • Ensure a dedicated human rights legal resource in the Scottish Parliament.

The Committee’s report set out the main recommendations in a roadmap:

Commitee_2018_Justice_Human Rights road map_01

(Source: SPICe)

The Committee will now agree an action plan to take these recommendations forward.

The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership

The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership was set up to make recommendations on how Scotland can lead by example in the field of human rights.

Like the Committee, a key concern for the Advisory Group was what might happen to the human rights landscape after Brexit. The group used three guiding principles to develop their recommendations:

  • non-regression from the rights currently guaranteed by membership of the European Union
  • keeping pace with future rights developments within the European Union
  • continuing to demonstrate leadership in human rights.

The main recommendation was to introduce legislation in the Scottish Parliament which would contain:

  • civil and political rights, restated from the Human Rights Act 1998
  • economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to adequate housing and the right to adequate food
  • an environmental right, this would be an overall right that would include the right of everyone to benefit from healthy ecosystems which sustain human well-being. It would also cover the rights of access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice
  • rights belonging to different groups, such as children, women and disabled people.

Many of these rights have been drawn from international human rights treaties of the United Nations. The Advisory Group said that the legislation can be implemented within the current or any future devolved arrangements of Scotland within the UK, and can be further developed if Scotland were to become independent.

The First Minister welcomed the report and said that she would set up a Task Force in early 2019 to take forward the recommendations. She also supported their recommendation that new legislation should be developed through public engagement, working across the public sector, civic society and the Scottish Parliament.

Nicki Georghiou, Senior Researcher, Equality and Human Rights