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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Scotland and human rights

Last week I attended a lecture and dinner with Shami Chakribarti, Director of Liberty, at the University of Edinburgh. Her theme was 'A man's a man for a'that - Scotland and the Human Rights Act.

Her main point was that it's easy to sentimentalise Scottish, British or "western values" as if they always came easily or as if people around the world don't also strive for dignity, equal treatment and fairness. At a time when many at Westminster seek to replace universal "human rights" with "British rights" or citizens' privileges, she encouraged Scotland not to follow this trend. In this shrinking interconnected world, we should not choose to be citizens somewhere but rather human beings everywhere.

A key target for her concern was the proposed Bill of Rights for the UK, as against the universal rights that were developed after the carnage of the Second World War. She highlighted three specific concerns:
  • Attacks on the European Court of Justice in decisions such a prisoner voting. These attacks fail to understand that the ECHR is now integrated into our system of justice. Not forgetting the irony of attacks on judges from those who preach the rule of law to others.
  • Judges overturning the decisions of elected representatives. Most democratic states recognise that there have to be underpinning rights that protect people against arbitrary law making. Those advocating a Bill of Rights should also recognise that in jurisdictions that adopt this model, judges tend to be much more interventionist and powerful.
  • That we risk only giving legal rights to the 'worthy citizen' as against the principle of equal treatment. Deportation and immigration cases illustrate this point well.
There is a perception, at least from an English angle, that Scotland is more relaxed on these points. A less excitable tabloid press certainly helps and Shami argued that she was optimistic because people across the UK are generally supportive of essential human rights. The problem is a perception that they are OK for us, but perhaps less so for others. Immigration cases reflect this point.

I am not convinced that Scots necessarily take a more positive view than the rest of the UK and I illustrated this with some examples from my own experience of anti-racism work. However, I do believe that we can win the argument that Scots are human beings before we are citizens.

Shami did touch on some topical Scottish issues. A concern that the benign Scottish influence over human rights might be lost if Scotland became independent. Either way she hoped we would support human rights not Scottish rights, whatever our constitutional future. She also warned against 'dangerously broad' definitions of speech offences in the proposed football offences legislation. She accepted that the objectives of the Bill are laudable, but experience of speech offences is that they must be closely defined. The broad anti-terrorist legislation provisions of 'glorifying terrorism' as against the clearer incitement to murder or racial hatred. 

The evening was a timely reminder for me of the importance of our human rights framework. Human rights standards and principles apply to each of us equally. Compliance with these rights should be mainstreamed in the design and delivery of public services. they can be used as a tool to argue for better and fairer services. The work of the Liberty and the Human Rights Consortium Scotland  in highlighting these issues deserves support.