Behind the scenes of Scotland’s National Human Rights Action Plan: An academic perspective

This week sees the launch of ‘Realising International Human Rights: Scotland on the Global Stage’, a special issue of the International Journal of Human Rights, guest edited by Dr Jo Ferrie, Professor Rebecca Wallace, and Dr Elaine Webster.

In this post, Elaine shares the motivations behind the project and highlights some of the insights that might inform future practice.

In December 2017, we celebrated SNAP, Scotland’s first national human rights action plan, and looked towards the challenges for SNAP ‘Take Two’. As well as looking ahead, it is also worth looking backwards, to how we got to SNAP in the first place. One of the strengths of SNAP was its foundation in an evidence base. A process of evidence gathering, to gain a baseline understanding of where we were in Scotland in terms of human rights protection, was a key task of a newly-created Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC). In the process of evidence gathering that took place, which lasted for around four years, we see some of the challenges and benefits in pursuing the broad aim of any national human rights institution – to support the local realisation of international rights.

Jo, Rebecca, and I witnessed this evidence gathering process from the side-lines, along with our fellow members of the SHRC’s Research Advisory Group. The role of the Research Advisory Group was to provide support in establishing research priorities and approaches in a way that would best help to further the SHRC’s aim. Within the Research Advisory Group, we recognised the scale of the evidence gathering task and the challenges in making decisions about how to go about collecting and compiling the information. There were questions that pertained to Scotland’s constitutional position – how to deal with issues that are important to people but that cross a reserved/devolved divide in terms of governmental and parliamentary competencies? There were questions that pertained to the way in which issues of concern were grouped, labelled and prioritised – how to relate cross-cutting issues of concern to international legal standards? How to articulate and apply prioritisation criteria in aspects of the research, to gain a fair sense of the prominence or incidence of any particular issue? And there were questions that pertained to the process of eliciting people’s views – the SHRC perceived a core aspect of its role as helping to devolve ownership of distant legal standards, which meant designing a participatory approach. We, in the Research Advisory Group, offered critical questioning and practical support, but at the same time we gained unexpected insights of our own.

The Research Advisory Group became a thought-provoking space for communication; to exchange knowledge with the Commission and between ourselves, from our range of disciplinary outlooks. I always wondered, as a legal academic, how law should be approached in this process, particularly in the participatory phases. Law is the backbone of the human rights protection system so we shouldn’t avoid talking about it, but legal rules, and judicial decisions about the meaning of those rules, change and they change often. This, I felt, actually created a significant challenge when aiming to encourage others to take ownership of talking about international rights. For Rebecca, it became increasing obvious that although we may be familiar with the term human rights, many still think of these rights as belonging to other people, and then not to everyone. There was a long way to go before the legal guarantees would be accepted as informing everyday life. Jo, as a sociologist, was concerned about how human rights were measured, particularly how violations that occurred in private spaces could be captured and resolved. When the evidence-gathering dust had settled we tried to find time to reflect on what we each had learned, and to explore some of those questions. It was also important for the Commission to use some of the data that it had invested in gathering to inform its own and others’ future work.

To explore our questions, a special issue of an international human rights journal was a perfect option, as we had identified clear themes that we knew were not unique to Scotland, or the UK – they were themes that we believed would speak to international audiences, both academics and advocacy organisations, in states around the world; states in which there was a familiar story of a push towards progressive human rights implementation and protection, but where there were simultaneous forces of resistance and structural barriers. We knew that there were inherent challenges in facilitating the translation of human rights standards into local contexts. Even 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even in states with extensive legal frameworks, it is, of course, a universal reality that people often don’t experience the protected rights day-to-day. The journal special issue allowed us also the flexibility to follow up on the issues that had inspired us individually to think about the realisation of international human rights. The format permitted space for different approaches within a broad theme, allowing us to marry our own areas of expertise with new questions that had been provoked by our behind-the-scenes access to the evidence-gathering process. This, we hope, has in the end allowed us to frame some of these insights from Scotland’s experience in an academic perspective, and in this way we hope to make a contribution to the further theorisation of local human rights promotion processes.

These are some of the key conclusions to emerge from the articles: that an informed and inclusive debate on the legal protection of rights like those relating to healthcare, employment and pensions could underpin Scotland’s potential as a leader amongst international states; that policy makers need to keep pushing ahead, and use the tools provided by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to operationalise the right to the highest attainable standard of mental health; that the presence of ideas like personalisation and reablement in the landscape of health and social care in Scotland is conducive to promoting the rights of older people, with further integration of a human rights based approach; that we need to do more to understand how to integrate and challenge multiple sites of oppression when pursuing rights realisation; that talking about the legal dimensions of human rights, which a significant number of civil society groups and activists did in Scotland, helped to cement a sense of local ownership of human rights; and that collaborative, participatory processes of collecting and sharing data about rights violations can make a more effective contribution to realising rights than statistical measures. Our aim now is to share what we have each learned with each other and with the local advocacy communities whose openness to participate in Scotland’s human rights journey was critical. In turn, we hope we can gain your insight into how lessons learnt can inform progress in practice. Nils Muižnieks captures the essence of our motivation for this project in his concluding thoughts in the special issue, when he writes that we can learn not only from the outcome of SNAP, but from the process.

If you’d like to find out more about any of the articles, please get in touch with Elaine:

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