This week marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Borne out of a period of worldwide turmoil and devastation following two world wars, during which the most horrific human rights violations occurred, the UN Declaration sought to promote a peaceful and positive future for all of humanity.
The language of the Declaration is clear and simple. It sets out universal values for all peoples and all nations. It states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and determines that the rights contained in it should be available to all without discrimination.
From the right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression to the right to education, it laid out the foundations for a more just and peaceful world.
In terms of progress made since the Declaration was published there is, of course, much to celebrate 70 years on. However it’s hard not to conclude that, even though it is the single most translated document in the world, the rights that it declared are still not universally respected or applied.
We know people face discrimination or persecution because of the beliefs they hold and many people across the world are subjected to cruel and degrading treatment.
This 70th anniversary therefore is a powerful and timely reminder that the onus is on all of us, especially those of us in government to stand up for human rights, both at home and abroad.
Of course, any discussion of human rights is meaningless if it doesn’t encompass economic, social and cultural rights. Those living in poverty, without fair work, decent social security, access to education, health and housing are not always able to enjoy the freedom and dignity of human rights in the same way as those who are wealthy.
That is why governments have an obligation not just to protect human rights in theory, but by creating the conditions where every individual can access and enjoy those rights.
Yet, when the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights recently visited the UK to explore the link between poverty and human rights he was hugely critical of the UK Government, commenting that their economic and welfare policies had unnecessarily inflicted “misery” on the poorest in our society. That was an important reminder that poverty and human rights are inextricably linked and that failure to tackle the former will always impact on the latter.
Being a member of the European Union has also strengthened the rights we have today, and the UN Special Rapporteur highlighted the risk Brexit poses to human rights in the UK. He said “if the European Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes no longer applicable in the UK, the level of human rights protections enjoyed by the population will be significantly diminished.”
He is right. As things stand, protections we enjoy under the Charter will cease to have effect in Scotland on 29 March 2019, despite Scotland voting to remain in the EU.
In contrast to the UK Government’s approach, the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to enhancing human rights in domestic policy. We seek to embed equality, dignity and respect in everything we do, which is why many recent Acts of the Scottish Parliament, such as the Community Empowerment Act and the Social Security Act, specifically refer to the UN treaty.
To further strengthen our commitments I also established an Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, chaired by human rights expert Professor Alan Miller.
The Group was asked to look at three issues: how to ensure Brexit doesn’t harm harm to human rights in Scotland; how Scotland can remain in step with future advances in EU human rights; and how we can ensure that Scotland is an international leader in respecting and enhancing human rights.
The group has now reported on these issues and I’m pleased to say I agree with their overall recommendations.
So the Scottish Government will work to build on our existing commitments to human rights and seek to protect Scotland from the damage being inflicted by the Tories’ obsessions with austerity and Brexit.
Whilst Theresa May’s disastrous Brexit plan continues to cause upheaval and division, the SNP Scottish Government will continue us to deliver for Scotland.
Tomorrow, we will set out our spending plans for the next financial year, ensuring that Scotland continues to benefit from first class public services, fair taxation and an approach to social security that has fairness, dignity and equality at its core.
We live in difficult and deeply uncertain times – as I write this, it’s not even clear if Theresa May will still be Prime Minister by the end of this week. But there is one thing that I can guarantee – the SNP will always stand up for Scotland and the interests of all who live here.