As England looks to repeal human rights, Scotland is celebrating them. And it's an irony not lost on Alan Miller, Scotland's human rights commissioner as his tenure comes to an end.
When Alan Miller, chair of Scotland’s Human Rights Commission, appeared before Holyrood’s justice committee for the final time last month, the biggest victory in his eyes was that he was still in post.
“I think that the main achievement is that the commission is relevant today,” he told MSPs. “Parliament established it back in 2007 with a fair degree of hesitation.”
Back then there were questions about whether Scotland needed a human rights commission and what value or relevance it would have, coming as it did when the so called bonfire of the quangos was set to be lit.
“I do not hear those questions anywhere any longer,” said Miller. “I hear other questions such as “Why did the commission not do this?” and “Why is it concentrating on that?”, but its relevance and credibility are now beyond question.”
Now with two weeks left in post before Judith Robertson steps into the commissioner role, Miller believes human rights in Scotland has transcended much of the initial negativity and has become a watch word for social justice in post-referendum Scotland.
This is in sharp contrast with our neighbours in England where the Conservatives want to repeal the Human Rights Act, and other political parties seem reluctant to leap to its defence. Probably because a view has evolved over time, fuelled by a hostile press, that human rights protection works only for unpopular groups like criminals, foreigners, and fat-cat lawyers.
You could be forgiven for thinking human rights are constantly under attack: when politicians band about the term it is usually in the negative, more often than not used as an exemplar for political correctness gone wrong. Human rights are often blamed for creating the UK’s increasingly litigious society where a culture of compensation has grown out of control, as well as establishing a criminals’ charter.
North of the border however it couldn’t be much more different. Post-referendum, Scotland is using human rights legislation to empower both individuals and communities, something other countries are looking to guide their own constitutions says Miller.
Some of these successes might not be instantly recognisable but have been fundamental to some of the more progressive pieces of Scottish legislation. The apologies act, for example, where victims are given right to access justice, and land reform where land and public buildings can be turned over to the local community, are both direct results of Scotland’s own human rights work.
Even Margo MacDonald's posthumous bill, for the right for terminally ill people to die, was based on progressive human rights legislation. Despite being defeated, the bill was undperpinned by progressive human rights legislation unique to Scotland.
“These are areas if you mentioned eight years ago might be transformed under human rights legislation, would have received a lot of head shaking and probably derision. But this legislation has brought human rights closer to everyday society,” says Miller.
The decision by the Scottish Parliament to establish a human rights commissioner was “prescient” according to Miller. Despite being created eight years ago amid heightened contempt for quangos, his introduction came at a crucial time when the country was on the cusp of something quite momentous and has led to Scotland being used as an exemplar for other small European countries trying to forge their own identity.
“It was a challenge but a welcome one,” he says. “The Scottish Parliament was very hesitant initially about creating the office during a time when the so-called quangos were being questioned and this was seen as just another one that wouldn’t add anything to Scotland when we had courts, the rule of law and elections. It wasn’t seen as being needed.
“We talk about human rights based approaches in everyday situations – in care, in health, in housing, Human rights in Scotland has come out from a little silo and been able to demonstrate its reliance in very broad areas.”
Talk of the UK leaving Europe and the repeal of the Human Rights Act by Westminster doesn’t fluster Miller. Instead he believes we should let the Conservative government show its hand.
Stepping into the breach
See Me’s programme director Judith Robertson will be leaving in March to become the new chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission.
Robertson has had a long-standing involvement in international issues, in social justice issues and in advocating for change and for the rights of many disadvantaged groups.
She previously spent 17 years with Oxfam, first as programme manager for Oxfam’s poverty programme in Scotland and then as head of Oxfam Scotland.
The appointment is full time for a fixed period of six years, with a salary of £70,000. It follows an open recruitment process which sought candidates with a commitment to promoting and protecting human rights issues.
“My own view is – bring it on. Put the views on the table, open them to scrutiny, test whether they are progressive or regressive and let’s defeat them.
“It’s a toxic, tiresome debate which is not of these times,” he says. “It doesn’t resonate across the rest of the UK or the rest of Europe: only Putin would welcome such a move.
“It’s a Westminster bubble that’s becoming increasingly politicised and playing into the EU referendum debate.”
If the proposals can’t be defeated Miller believes Scotland should go it alone, adopting its own Human Rights Act, retaining the European Convention but adding necessary UN treaty rights to achieve greater social justice.
“The referendum was a huge event that has energised the country. No matter what side of the fence you were on it enabled the country to lift its head, look around and ask itself what kind of society we want to develop. People have a feeling of empowerment and human rights is crucial in taking this forward.”
There is a long way to go on that score but creating an environment where human rights aren’t seen as something negative has been one of the commission’s biggest successes. Miller believes an integral part of this achievement has been the creation of the the National Action Plan for Human Rights (Snap) which creates a template to engender human rights in everday society.
Miller explains that “in a nutshell Snap is a commitment from very wide parts of Scottish society including government, civil society, and public authorities to apply a human rights based approach through all of governance and decision making in Scotland.”
The referendum was a huge event that has energised the country
Miller sees Snap as having a far-reaching effect. “Human rights need to be integrated at all levels of decision-making and people need to be empowered to better understand and affirm their rights in their interactions with public authorities, whether its health boards, or the care sector.
“Policy-makers and decision-makers at a local and national level, need to see themselves as much more accountable to those to whom they provide services."
Human rights, he says, needs to be integrated right up to the decisions being made about the annual budgets, allocation of resources, and the national performance framework. “What are the priorities, what are the measurement indicators that Scotland should be ensuring to capture the country’s progress?” he says. “That’s what we need to be constantly asking.”
In terms of his own future, Miller says he has no plans but is confident he is leaving the office in very capable hands. “I’m assured the work of the commission will go from strength to strength. We’ve created something that is just at its very beginning but has huge promise. Human rights has always been under attack, they always will.
“But Scotland has a huge appetite for change and I firmly believe the human rights agenda in Scotland can be used to underpin a fairer, more equal, better society.”