Respecting human rights is more vital than ever in a challenging, mean-spirited difficult world

Professor Alan Miller'Scottish Human Rights Commission
Professor Alan Miller'Scottish Human Rights Commission
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Saturday marked International Human Rights Day. Commemorating the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it gives us an important opportunity to reflect on what human rights are to us – and in fact we should mark it every day, in every way, everywhere.

2016 placed human rights on a back foot. Narrow political and state interests have been undermining rule of law and human rights. For example, this can be seen from vetoes used in the UN Security Council to frustrate a resolution to the Syrian conflict, to the downward spiral of European states in response to those fleeing such conflict and to the mean-spirited Brexit debate closer to home which risks undermining and imperilling the constitutional guarantees of rights and freedoms within Scotland.

2017 needs human rights to be on the front foot, reclaiming the space in our public debates and decision-making processes. Solicitors have a key role in that debate and in helping protect human rights: private practitioners can help protect access to justice; in-house solicitors can ensure legal compliance and support the development of best practice by public authorities; commercial lawyers can advise corporate clients of their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. More can be done through supporting law centres, clinics and NGOs and through influencing legal professional and academic bodies to promote and protect our human rights framework.

So where does Scotland sit on the international human rights map? At the call of the UN, over 100 countries, including Scotland, have now established national human rights institutions as independent bodies to protect and promote human rights. My role, having moved from the Scottish Human Rights Commission this year, is to represent and advocate on their behalf within the UN and broader international community. This includes bringing the experiences and perspectives of these institutions to influence decision-making processes within the UN by holding to account member states for implementing their international legal human rights obligations.

Scotland has a growing international profile on human rights issues. Our National Action Plan for Human Rights is recognised as exemplary practice, as is its championing of climate justice. As a member of the First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe, I have been engaging with the legal community and civic society, building an emerging consensus around three guiding principles for Scotland of non-regression of rights; not being left behind in future progressive European developments; and taking the lead in rights. A Scottish Universities Legal Network on Europe has stepped forward in support of this initiative and the Law Society of Scotland has also taken part. It will be developed next year.

The EU is widely regarded within the international community as a leading human rights influence in the world and there is considerable interest in how Scotland now responds to Brexit – a defining issue for human rights in Scotland. It removes one and imperils the other of our two pillars of the closest Scotland has to a constitutional framework – the required compliance with EU law and with the ECHR.

EU law guarantees rights across virtually all fields of law including employment, equality, freedom of movement, family, privacy, consumer and criminal and a lesson from the Brexit “debate” is not to leave communities behind or take the public for granted.

Prof Alan Miller is Special Envoy of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions