Human rights in Scotland: We must celebrate diversity and work together to 'tear down the mighty walls of injustice' – Pam Duncan-Glancy MSP

It has been 73 years since the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a milestone document.

The Covid pandemic saw victims of domestic violence locked down with their abuser, unable to access support (Picture: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images)

The declaration sets out the inalienable rights that everyone has just because they are human – regardless of race, colour, religion, ability, sex, language, gender, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

If I were writing this in the years before Covid, I’d be saying human rights are precarious, millions don’t enjoy them equally and we have a lot to do.

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But while we discuss human rights now, we cannot fail to reflect on the grave reality of what faces us as we live through Covid.

Whilst human rights were already precarious for many people across Scotland pre-pandemic, the last few years have deepened the inequality facing women, BAME people and LGBT people.

Six-in-ten deaths in the pandemic were disabled people. Many disabled people had social care reduced and withdrawn. They were left without help to wash or eat. Some were even denied resuscitation. Unpaid carers, predominately woman, were left to pick up the pieces.

Woman carried out an average of four-and-a-half hours of unpaid work each day, taking on increased caring, childcare, home-schooling and domestic work. At the same time, it was women-dominated sectors such as retail and hospitality that were hit by closures, and millions of women who were key workers were sent out to work without PPE.

The UN have said women’s rights could be set back 25 years.

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People who lived in care homes, many of whom were older, were denied their rights. For thousands, it was their fundamental right to life, for many more, their right to a private and family life, as restrictions denied them any opportunity to see their families.

And millions have been plunged into poverty, through spiralling debt and the rising cost of living. Their economic rights to a decent standard of life, a distant dream.

This pandemic has been a human rights catastrophe, both as a direct result of the virus, and the result of the impact of decisions taken around the virus that excluded the people most affected by them.

The experience of users of social care is one example. Another is what Engender has described as a ‘shadow pandemic’; gender-based violence where women were locked down with their abuser, unable to access support, and perpetrators empowered in locked down lives. One women’s support group told me that when a woman called for help, they asked why the line was so bad. She replied that she was calling from her wardrobe.

We must go forward to a better Scotland, where everyone is able to enjoy their human rights. That means we must learn from the past, listen to the people most affected – including women, unpaid carers, key workers, disabled people, BAME people, lone parents and low-paid workers.

The upcoming Covid inquiry is the start of this learning. It must leave no stone unturned on human rights. It must shine a light into dark corners.

Human rights exist to provide a framework that allows governments to protect us all from violations of our rights, to make decisions that fulfil them and ensure people have, in international standards terms, a ‘life of dignity’.

Far too many don’t have that. Services are not and never have been available to them, accessible, affordable or of an acceptable quality.

The last two years have seen everyone live with restrictions like this, where work, rest and play was unavailable and inaccessible, and everyone found it incredibly hard. If it is not OK for everyone, it should never be acceptable for anyone.

So we have a big job to do to make rights real, and I believe we’re at a crucial moment in human history, and in human rights, to do that. This is a moment we must meet, to build a Scotland where everyone is able to realise their human rights and enjoy them equally.

Human rights are indivisible and interdependent. We cannot cherry pick those that are easy to implement in policy and practice, or those who can have them.

We must give effect to those that are harder to make real too, and we must give effect to them for everyone, no matter our gender, who we love, where we live, whether we are disabled or not, our colour or where we were born.

Because, as American political activist Cynthia McKinney said: “We are way more powerful when we turn to each other and not on each other, when we celebrate our diversity… and together tear down the mighty walls of injustice.”

For me, that starts with an all-encompassing, tripartite approach to incorporating UN treaties, including the Conventions on the Rights of Disabled People, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, and to give effect to the rights of LGBT+ and older people in law too.

I welcome the Scottish government’s commitment to doing this, but we can’t wait. We need urgent action to make it a reality. Our new human rights laws must be ambitious, protect those who have the most to gain, and who currently struggle to realise their rights. They must be backed by targeted financial resources too.

Whilst we wait (hopefully not for too long), the Scottish government must make continual efforts to progressively realise the economic, social, and cultural rights we already have, so that the new protections stand on strong foundations and don’t simply fend off retrogression.

All of us in Scotland deserve nothing less than a relentless focus on making rights real – on the high street, in the workplace, the home, the boardroom, schools, colleges and unis and in parliament, and that starts now. I do all I can, whenever I can, to make that happen, and fast. There is no time to waste.

Pam Duncan-Glancy is a Labour MSP for Glasgow region

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