Today is Human Rights Day, celebrating the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 63 years ago.
The UK has always been a bit sniffy about the need to adopt and incorporate human rights into our domestic laws. We only got a Human Rights Act for the UK in 1998 – one of the Labour Government’s finest moments, in my opinion – and a Scottish Commission for Human Rights in 2006. Only a few years later, MSPs were questioning the need for the Commisions’s existence and squabbling over its budget (cut by 20% in case you wondered). In many areas, we have failed to take a rights-based approach to lawmaking and indeed, have only brought existing law and practice into line with human rights requirements when dragged kicking and screaming by the courts. Cadder is the perfect example of this.
Now, the entire human rights framework in the UK is under threat by a Conservative party that want to repeal the 1998 Act and replace it with a much weaker Bill of Rights. This seems somewhat at odds with official Liberal Democrat policy. The party stands for a written Constitution “with a Bill of Rights at its heart to protect individual rights, including the right to a clean environment”. But it wants a Bill of Rights to “strengthen and entrench the rights guaranteed in the Human Rights Act, which we have consistently supported”. Given that they have rolled over in coalition on a range of policy commitments, I don’t hold out much hope for this being the one they die in the ditch for.
Some would argue – and they do – that we don’t need these legally established rights. That Scotland and the UK are civilized nations, where everyone is already treated equally and fairly. Try telling that to women who perpetually earn less than their male counterparts; or to the hundreds of under 18 year olds languishing in adult prisons; or the older people denied adequate care in hospital.
There are others who are intrinsically suspicious of a rights-based approach to public policy. One of the few laws in Scotland to accommodate rights, responsibilities and remedies is the Additional Support for Learning (Scotland ) Act 2004 (as amended in 2009). Yet, there have been issues about its implementation, with many public agencies effectively thumbing their noses at their duties under the legislation or citing cost as a reason for non-compliance, when the law does not allow for it. Rather than comply willingly and actively, and find ways to make support happen, local authorities are spending precious resources to challenge parents and children’s requests, all the way to the highest courts. It can take years for decisions to be reached and support provided, and all the time, children are going without what they need in order to learn effectively.
Moreover, we have a very patriarchal attitude towards service provision, exhibited throughout the public sector. Professionals know best; people who receive services are not to be trusted; managers gatekeep resources through increasingly complex assessment processes; cash-strapped services are forced into unpalatable budget decisions which compromise people’s rights and quality of life; there is an innate belief that if professionals are adequately resourced and trained, and feel good about themselves and their work, then that is the way to improve provision for those who need and use services. Few are prepared to turn things around and focus entirely on people’s needs and rights as the starting point for service design and planning.
Every day, there are people whose human rights are denied them, right here in 21st Century Scotland. We are a wealthy, democratic country, yet greed, selfishness and intolerance combine to ensure that there are haves and have nots. Inequality is growing not shrinking. Yes, inequality is relative – our poor, disadvantaged and dispossessed are not quite so badly off as those in developing countries, but it still does not excuse the fact that we all allow injustice to be perpetrated throughout our communities, permeating our society.
I could walk you through all the articles of the UDHR highlighting successes and abuses, but I’d rather you did it yourself. Because part of our problem is that none of us spend enough time thinking about human rights and what they actually mean. And maybe if we spent time trying to ensure that rights are respected for everyone in our society, they would be. We all have human rights, but we all also have a responsibility to make them real, particularly for those whose rights are denied them. Then, and only then, can we claim a right to live in a free and fair world.
Article 1 states that we are all free and equal, article 30 states that no one can take away our rights. No matter how much this Conservative-led government tries. And that really would be something worth celebrating.