Today at Holyrood, I will lead for the Scottish Government in the first Parliamentary debate of 2017. As we look forward to a New Year, it is both appropriate and symbolic that it will focus on the importance of human rights and Scotland’s place in Europe. And, through our collective commitment to human rights safeguards in our vision for a fairer Scotland, these are perhaps the most powerful values binding our diverse movement for Independence together.
On January 10th 1946 – 71 years ago today – the first General Assembly of the United Nations met at Westminster Central Hall. This was a time when the UK government recognised it’s duty to promote human rights and closer international cooperation. It played a leading role in the establishment of the United Nations and the Council of Europe and in the development of what has become the world’s most successful and influential human rights treaty: the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The UK government of today is far removed from this position as a defender of human rights. Instead it wants to disown our shared heritage and appears intent not only on removing us from ECHR but on scrapping the Human Rights Act too. Although there is speculation of a “lift and shift” of safeguards to a British Bill of Rights, when you consider how the UK government is prepared to use EU citizens resident in the UK as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations – a flagrant and wanton disregard for their human rights – we should be in no doubt that our existing rights are at risk of erosion.
Human rights have been successfully deployed time and time again by ordinary people in challenging the vested interests of public authorities and the state. This is not a comfortable position for governments but it is essential for a well-functioning democracy which prevents disconnect between people and politicians.
The Human Rights Act has been used by disabled people to challenge the UK government’s welfare changes and cuts, including highlighting the inequity of the Bedroom Tax and the abolition of the Independent Living Fund (reinstated by the Scottish Government). Victims of crime have held the police to account for failing to investigate alleged crimes properly. Rape survivors have ensured they can participate in proceedings relating to the release of their medical records. And families of military personnel killed in action have taken on the MOD for supplying out of date equipment. These are but a few of the countless examples where people at the most vulnerable or painful times in their lives have exercised their rights and secured justice.
Because human rights are devolved and the ECHR is written into the devolution settlement, everything I do as the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Social Security and Equalities has to be anchored in a rights based approach, whether in implementing our Fairer Scotland Action plan or our Disability Delivery Plan, building our new social security system or, recognising the global nature of human rights, in welcoming 1 in 4 refugees from the UK Syrian Resettlement Programme.
In its actions and its attitudes, Scotland is a country which locates itself not where geography has placed us – on the periphery of a continent – but at the heart of a progressive vision for Europe. If the seismic events of 2016 have communicated any message it is surely that the ideals which unite progressive nations must always be greater than the issues that divide us.
As we come together for the Scottish Independence Convention on Saturday let us empower our diverse movement to reach into every community to spread the message that human rights are the tools for the people to challenge and change this country. Human rights are the foundation stones of a fairer, Independent Scotland; let’s start building that new nation on them.
This article originally appeared in the National.