The Human Rights Act: A Test of Commitment

Written by: Professor Alan Miller, Chair, Scottish Human Rights Commission

Published: 29/05/2015

Proposed changes to the Human Rights Act call into question the UK Government's commitment to human rights law.

In Scotland, we enjoy a greater degree of protection for our human rights than in most other countries. For the past 60 years or so, the quality of our everyday lives has improved as a result of the progressive implementation of human rights laws and treaties that apply not just to the UK and Scotland, but in Europe and the rest of the world.

However, there is no room for complacency.  The UK Government has announced in its first Queen’s Speech that it will “bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights”. Although the details are unclear, it seems likely that, among other things, the Bill will be intended to replace the Human Rights Act and “break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights” (Conservative Manifesto, 2015).

Changes to the UK’s human rights laws would have a direct impact on the lives of people in Scotland, particularly in reserved policy areas like immigration, defence and some aspects of welfare. Any regressive changes to the UK’s human rights laws would also send a damaging message across Europe and beyond, weakening the international system of human rights as a whole.

As Scotland’s national human rights institution, the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s position is clear. Any proposals to change the UK’s human rights laws must pass a very simple test: do the changes take us forwards or back?

We will, of course, examine any future legislative proposals in detail. However, the Commission has repeatedly expressed long-standing concerns about the regressive nature of many elements of previous proposals for a British Bill of Rights. These include enabling the UK to pick and choose which judgments to accept from the European Court of Human Rights, reducing the scope of human rights laws to apply only to “the most serious” cases or to particular areas of law, and restricting eligibility to rights on the basis of nationality or citizenship. Any and all of these changes would fly in the face of progressive protection for human rights.

Against this backdrop, the Scottish Human Rights Commission and other partners are committed to the continued implementation and development of Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP). SNAP is a collaborative, progressive initiative that brings together public bodies, national and local government, civil society organisations and people whose rights are affected in practice. It is a roadmap for action to make all internationally recognised human rights a reality for everyone in Scotland – so that Scotland  becomes a country where each of us can live with human dignity, in all parts of our lives.

This is a time to test commitment to the fundamental principles and values enshrined in our human rights laws and international obligations. We must not allow regressive changes to slip through, or opportunities to improve people’s lives to be missed. The ALLIANCE, its members and other civil society organisations have an important role to play in ensuring that people’s rights continue to be realised, rather than undermined.

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