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Today is human rights day. Each year,
10 December is celebrated around the world as the date in 1948 on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. I am delighted to mark the occasion by opening today’s debate in the Scottish Parliament.
We celebrate human rights day because we believe in a world that can do so much better—a world in which every member of humanity can live with dignity and enjoy their full rights. We can all contribute to achieving that shared vision as individuals, as political leaders, as community activists and as members of wider society.
I pay special tribute to a group of people who are deserving not just of our admiration and support, but of our profound gratitude and respect. It is no coincidence that yesterday, the day before human rights day, was designated by the United Nations as international day of human rights defenders. Without the courage and self-sacrifice of the thousands of individuals around the world who daily stand up for human rights by challenging human rights abuses and holding powerful people to account, we would not have anything to celebrate on human rights day. Without the work that is done by human rights defenders in every nation, the rights that we all cherish would, ultimately, be in peril.
The work that is done by human rights defenders spans the entire spectrum of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. They campaign to open up space for civil society, to meet people’s basic needs in healthcare, education and advice, to educate people to know and claim their rights, and to hold to account those who are in power. They do so, however, at considerable personal risk. The daily experience of many human rights defenders—and their friends and families—is that they face the threat of physical attack, harassment, detention, surveillance, legal action and defamation of character.
Speaking up for human rights also costs lives. According to the leading non-governmental organisation, Front Line Defenders, 321 human rights defenders in 27 countries were targeted and killed in 2018 for the work that they did. That is a grim statistic and, shamefully, the number stands at an all-time high.
Colombia is a country where that risk is particularly acute. Of the 321 defenders who were killed in 2018, more than a third—126 people—were killed in Colombia. In Colombia alone, 59 human rights defenders were killed in the first six months of 2019. Death threats against human rights defenders have increased by 75 per cent.
In October, I had the great pleasure of meeting two inspirational human rights defenders from Colombia, who represent the communities that live along the banks of the Atrato river, in the Chocó region. It is one of the poorest parts of the country, and it is home to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities who depend on the river for sustenance, health and sanitation. The river also underpins their spiritual and cultural lives. Their way of life is under threat from conflict, mining activity and environmental degradation. It is one of the world’s top 10 biodiversity hotspots, but the river has become a toxic dumping ground for pollution from illegal mining. Local people face intimidation from paramilitary groups and increasingly serious threats to their health and their environment.
Local communities have now taken the initiative by establishing the guardians of the Atrato, in order to uphold a landmark ruling by the Colombian constitutional court. In 2017, the court ruled that the Atrato river, together with the biocultural and human rights of local communities, must be safeguarded. The ruling placed direct responsibility on the Colombian Government for ensuring the river’s protection, maintenance, conservation and restoration.
The Atrato river guardians are now working to monitor implementation of that judgment. In doing so, the group of seven men and seven women are standing up to powerful interests in government, business and armed militia groups. The courage that it takes for them to do that is truly inspirational. They deserve not just our admiration but our active support for the work that they do in helping the Atrato river communities to defend their rights.
I am pleased to say that Scotland has been showing solidarity in very practical ways, through the work that is being done by Dr Mo Hume and her colleagues at the University of Glasgow, in collaboration with the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and local partners in the Chocó region. That is something that we should all be proud of. It was great to meet them when they came to Parliament a few weeks ago.
We are also acting to demonstrate solidarity with human rights defenders through the work of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, which exists to enable prominent human rights defenders to spend time in Scotland—even although we cannot guarantee them good weather—to develop their skills and to extend their networks in a place of safety, which is important. The fellowship ran for the first time in 2018, and this year we have been delighted to welcome two human rights defenders, from Russia and Zambia. I am very pleased that Konstantin Baranov and Laura Miti are both in the gallery today.
Human rights activists in Russia face different threats from those that are faced by activists in Colombia, but the threats are no less significant. There are severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and assembly, and human rights organisations including the non-governmental organisation For Human Rights, have been closed down by the courts. Individual human rights activists face smear campaigns, internet restrictions and arbitrary detention. Respected organisations that work to document human rights abuses and to challenge corruption have been denounced as “undesirable”.
Funding from within Russia to support such work is limited, yet those who accept money from external sources find themselves being accused of being foreign agents. Recent changes to the law mean that independent journalists and bloggers now face the same difficulties.
The human rights situation in Zambia illustrates a different challenge altogether. Like the United Kingdom, Zambia is a democracy. It does not have a history of being a repressive state. In fact, Scotland has a close and enduring friendship with Zambia, and it is one of our four international development partners. Nonetheless, those who speak out for human rights and who challenge corruption and injustice there can face harassment and marginalisation. The space that is available for civil society and journalists to operate in is under pressure. Legitimate public protests can be met with a heavy-handed and even violent response from the authorities.
Zambia has rich natural resources, yet there are pressures on small farmers, and there are questions about equitable access to land, food insecurity and poor nutrition. Zambia is famous for its copper mining industry, but there are concerns about the impact of mining on public health. There have also been concerns recently about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights in Zambia. We know that such challenges are not unique to Zambia. The United Kingdom, too, has questions to answer about hunger, food insecurity and other rights abuses.
Issues such as land reform and the public health importance of environmental protections are essential to the work of this Parliament. We have championed the rights of LGBTI people here—indeed, the Scottish Parliament was founded on the principle of non-discrimination. Human rights are universal and apply to all, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation or any other characteristic.
More generally, though, human rights defenders in many countries are at risk of being criticised, excluded and ignored. It takes courage and commitment to risk one’s career or to face intimidation in order to speak up for human rights. Again, we in Scotland must be on our guard—we cannot ever become complacent.
Our commitment to human rights is also a commitment not merely to tolerate dissenting views or to put up with opinions that we do not personally share. For human rights to prosper in Scotland we must respect and genuinely value the diversity of Scottish society. We must commit to sharing and debating our different views and opinions in a spirit of openness and mutual respect, and with a dedication to shared human rights values and to pursuit of the common good. I hope that that will be the tone of today’s debate.
In that respect, this year’s Scottish human rights defender fellowships could not have had better participants than Konstantin Baranov and Laura Miti. They both work tirelessly in their own countries to support human rights defenders, to build capacity and increase the space for civil society to operate, and to educate people that they may hold their Government to account for their actions and their use of public resources. During their time in Scotland, they have held up a mirror to our policies and practice, not just by participating in events and meeting new contacts, but by offering their expert insights and by drawing on their immense practical experience in order to help us here. That two-way exchange of knowledge and skills is a fundamental part of the fellowship.
I pay tribute to the two fellows and express my gratitude—once again—to the University of Dundee, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders and all our other partners for making possible the fellowship, of which we should all be very proud.
I conclude with the self-evident truth that we are all human rights defenders. Wherever we are, and whoever we are, we each have a vital contribution to make. That includes Scotland’s children and young people, who also play an important role in standing up for human rights. Age is no barrier to speaking out for what is right. If members have seen any of the fearless youngsters during events that they have held in Parliament, they will know how absolutely fearless they are. Last week, I was particularly pleased to meet Revati Campbell, Gavin Stewart and Beccie White from the Scottish Youth Parliament, who were able to come to Bute house to meet the Scottish human rights defender fellows.
We might not all face the same threats as the Atrato river guardians, or be in a position to undertake work on the scale, and with the sophistication, of Konstantin Baranov and Laura Miti. However, we should all be inspired by their examples—we all have a part to play.
Human rights defenders teach us the importance of standing up for human rights. In this Parliament, across civil society and throughout Scotland, we all have a duty to raise our voices in support of the vision that we share. That vision is for a Scotland and a wider world that truly live up to the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and which secure fundamental human dignity for every member of humanity. On human rights day 2019, I once again commend the vision of this Parliament.
That the Parliament notes that the International Day of Human Rights Defenders is celebrated each year on 9 December and that 2019 marks 21 years since the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; appreciates the vital work that human rights defenders undertake around the world, often at considerable risk to themselves, their families and their communities; reaffirms its own support for, and commitment to, the work of human rights defenders in all states and nations, in keeping with the principles of the UN Declaration and in recognition of the critically important role of human rights defenders in working to eliminate all violations and abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and commends and pays tribute to the contribution made by the participants in the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to open on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives in today’s important debate reaffirming our support for human rights defenders.
“Some of the bravest people in the world”.
That is Amnesty International’s description of those individuals who are courageous in the face of threats, harassment, detention and physical attacks. They remain determined in their fight for a freer and fairer world, where human rights are protected for everyone. Sadly, as we heard from the minister, 2018 saw the highest number of human rights defenders killed on record. According to data that was collected by Front Line Defenders, 321 individuals in 27 countries were targeted and killed. The groups that were targeted are wide ranging and include journalists, who often come under severe pressure when shining a light on human rights concerns; women human rights defenders, who are at risk of being targets of sexual and gender-based violence, harassment, intimidation and public smearing; those who work on land and environmental issues, which include defending indigenous people’s rights, often in the face of private companies that are aligned with state interests; and LGBT human rights defenders, who can face multiple threats by the authorities in societies that are deeply rooted in discrimination.
Actions have been taken to protect and aid human rights defenders across the world. The United Nations adopted the declaration on human rights defenders, which states that defenders have a right to defend human rights, associate freely with others, document human rights abuses, seek resources for human rights work, criticise offending Government bodies and agencies, and access protection from the UN and regional mechanisms. Although the declaration is not legally binding, in recent years, several states have adopted laws that explicitly protect human rights defenders.
In North and South America, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights established a special unit to protect defenders in 2001. The rapporteurship on human rights defenders closely follows the situation of all individuals who work to defend rights in the region.
Similarly, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights appointed a special rapporteur on human rights defenders for the region. Their mandate includes examining the situation of human rights defenders in Africa, submitting reports to the African Commission, developing strategies to better protect human rights defenders and promoting the implementation of the UN declaration on human rights defenders.
In our own country, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a long history of supporting human rights defenders. In 2013, the UK became the first state to adopt a plan with specific commitments relating to the protection of human rights defenders working in the fields of business and human rights. The plan stated that the Government would instruct embassies and high commissions to
“work with host governments ... UK business, trade unions, NGOs, human rights defenders, academics, lawyers and other experts so they can help inform companies on the human rights risks they face”, and to
“support ... civil society and trade union efforts to ... promote protection of human rights defenders who are actively engaged on issues relating to business and human rights”.
This summer, the UK Government renewed those commitments with the publication of its most recent human rights defenders policy paper. It outlined the importance of human rights defenders to the UK and ways in which the UK Government can support them. The paper included numerous pledges, such as using
“all routes, bilateral and multilateral, to create stronger global standards to support and protect Human Rights Defenders” and providing
“practical in-country support as appropriate, taking into account the local context and the wishes of the Human Rights Defender”.
The UK has a proud tradition of strong democratic values, and I welcome the UK Government's renewed commitment to promoting universal human rights, with individuals, and communities able to challenge, discuss and debate freely and safely, without fear of attack. That work is vital as, across the world, defenders are facing prosecution every day in their efforts to protect human rights.
Let us take the case of Azza Soliman in Egypt. Azza bravely speaks out for victims of torture, domestic abuse and rape. She co-founded the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance and later Lawyers for Justice and Peace to give legal aid, support and literacy lessons to women in poverty and survivors of abuse. Because of that work, Azza and other Egyptian human rights defenders have been labelled as spies and national security threats. They have been targeted with smear campaigns and Government surveillance, and security forces and pro-Government media constantly harass them. Recently, Azza was arrested and interrogated, and she now faces charges of slandering Egypt’s name. She has been banned from travel, her assets have been frozen and she could face time in prison. The UK Government has followed Azza’s case closely and has highlighted it on several occasions. It has also expressed its concern about the arrests of activists, bloggers and journalists in Egypt.
When the Scottish Parliament was founded, it was written into the Scotland Act 1998 that all its laws must be compatible with the principles of the Human Rights Act 1998. Last year, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, of which I am a member, carried out an inquiry into embedding human rights in the Parliament’s work so that it complies with those principles. The inquiry gave us the opportunity to meet a range of human rights defenders from all walks of life. We heard from two 11-year-old defenders about work that they had been doing to increase children’s awareness of human rights and how to protect them. Dylan, from the Children’s Parliament, told us about the multiple workshops that he had been leading in schools around Scotland, and his colleague Hannah told us how, on a visit to the UN, she had taken a mural that had been made by children from her school to show their views on their community.
We also heard from defenders in Leith who had used a human rights-based approach to seek improvements in their housing conditions and to realise their human right to an adequate standard of housing. The community had developed a set of human rights indicators to gain action from the local council. The committee’s inquiry was highly informative, and I am glad that we had the opportunity to bring in those brilliant human rights defenders to give us their evidence.
We welcomed the creation of the Scottish human rights defenders fellowship by the Scottish Government and the University of Dundee. The opportunity that the fellowship provides to build relationships and share expertise with Scottish organisations is vital.
I also welcome the support that is provided to human rights defenders by the UK Government through the Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy. The fund is allocated mostly to projects by human rights defenders and civil society organisations.
In closing, I would like to speak directly to all human rights defenders across the world. You put yourself at great personal risk to protect and promote the rights of others. We thank you for your courage and determination in fighting for human rights. We support you and stand by you, wherever you are in the world.
Scottish Labour welcomes the debate and the chance to reflect on our progress on the human rights agenda, particularly given that the Labour Party has a proud record of promoting and supporting human rights. It was, of course, a Labour Government that enshrined in UK law the rights and freedoms that are contained in the European convention on human rights.
Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Last year’s debate, rightly, reminded members of the basis on which this Parliament was founded, with human rights embedded in our work and in the Scotland Act 1998, as the minister reminded us in her opening remarks. The rights that are contained in the European convention on human rights are enshrined in section 57 of the Scotland Act 1998, which means that the Scottish Parliament cannot do anything contrary to the rights that are contained in the ECHR. The Human Rights Act 1998, which provides important protection to Scottish citizens in relation to laws that are passed on reserved matters by the UK Parliament, is listed in schedule 4 to the Scotland Act 1998.
Although I think that most of us will agree with today’s motion, discussion is still required in some areas, and there are areas of possible disagreement. One such area is the approach that is taken by the Conservative Government at Westminster. Although it might have dropped proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British bill of rights, the Conservatives now speak about a pledge to update the act. Sadly, given their track record, I doubt that that would represent an improvement or a strengthening of rights.
Undoubtedly, we have to remain alert and to stick to the pledges that have been made in this Parliament, ensuring that we adhere to the principles on which our Parliament was founded, with everyone having the right to live in dignity and to be treated with respect. The challenges have certainly not diminished over the past 20 years.
The first Scottish national action plan—SNAP—which was widely commended, including internationally, was published on international human rights day in December 2013. The Scottish Human Rights Commission took a leadership role in bringing together people with lived experience of human rights issues and representatives of public bodies and civil society organisations, as well as the Scottish Government. That action plan ran for four years.
SNAP 2 has now been drawn together and is out for consultation. I take this opportunity to thank the Scottish Human Rights Commission and all those who are drafting SNAP 2. I encourage members to promote the work in their constituencies and regions, and I encourage people to provide submissions to the consultation, which closes early next week. Only by ensuring the widest possible engagement can we involve all of Scotland’s citizens in advancing the human rights of all.
The Government has a significant responsibility, as do parliamentarians, in our scrutiny and advocacy roles. However, every family, every community and each individual should have an interest in learning about, and standing up for, everyone’s human rights. Achieving that approach to human rights is not, and has not been, straightforward. We should not make progress for some at the expense of others, and care must be taken, with respectful discussion and thorough scrutiny taking place at all times.
SNAP 2 includes a recommendation to
“Pursue and advocate for the incorporation of the right to an adequate standard of living and other economic and social rights, including getting cross-party support for this agenda”.
My colleagues Mary Fee and David Stewart will mention various issues in the debate, but I would like to specifically mention the right to food. I note that the Scottish Government is still to bring forward the good food nation bill that was promised. The Scottish Food Coalition and many other organisations, which have representatives at Parliament today, hope to see a clear commitment on the right to food in the bill. Scottish Labour would also welcome that.
However, given that we do not have any detail yet, and to assist with focusing discussion on the matter here in Scotland, I intend to consult on a member’s bill. My proposal will include the introduction of a statutory right to food, backed up by an independent statutory body, with clear duties on public bodies, and measures and targets. Labour’s manifesto for the UK general election provides a clear commitment to doing exactly that.
This is undoubtedly a human rights issue. It was a point touched on by the minister in her opening statement. One in four children is living in poverty, children are going hungry every day, and food bank use is multiplying at a completely unacceptable rate—that does not meet the high principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There can surely be no doubt that child poverty must be tackled as a matter of urgency. However, tackling child poverty, which we in the Parliament are all committed to doing, cannot be done without addressing the discrimination against women in our society. Worldwide, women are oppressed and discriminated against on the grounds of their sex—we have heard about that already in this debate. Violence, sexual assault, degradation and poverty are a reality for far too many women, and our commitment to human rights must mean addressing all of that.
Last week, we would all have been shocked to learn of the death of the young 23-year-old woman who died in India in a New Delhi hospital after being set on fire as she travelled to testify at the trial of two men who were accused of raping her. That shocking loss of life must not be in vain, and that young woman’s bravery in being prepared to appear in court must be recognised. Violent threats or acts of violence continue to silence far too many women. Here in Scotland, the campaigning organisation Zero Tolerance recently highlighted the steady rise in the number of sexual crimes. The Scottish Government’s own figures show 13,547 sexual crimes were recorded for 2018-19. That will be a low figure in comparison to the actual number of sexual assaults, as many still go unreported. The vast majority of those crimes are against women. A recent Engender briefing paper states:
“Violence against women remains a human rights violation experienced at epidemic levels in Scotland.”
Those shocking statistics remind us that we all have much to do both nationally and internationally if we are to each take seriously our role as human rights defenders. I therefore welcome the growing support for international instruments being incorporated into Scots law that place women’s rights at the core of our work in human rights. The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women marks its 40th anniversary this month. Scottish Labour is pleased to add its voice in support of full adherence to the principles that it sets out at national and international levels.
I will conclude by sharing with members a poem by Marion Bernstein, which she wrote in 1876 and is entitled “Human Rights”. It is from “Mirren’s Musings”. Marion Bernstein was a feminist poet writing in Glasgow in the 1870s, and I believe that, as a woman of great talent, she deserves far greater recognition in the Parliament and in wider Scottish society. Reflecting on her words from over 140 years ago, we are reminded of those who came before us arguing so strongly for a society where everyone has their fair share of resources, and where dignity and respect, rather than abuse, are the norm.
“Man holds so exquisitely tight
To everything he deems his right;
If woman wants a share, to fight
She has, and strive with all her might.
But we are nothing like so jealous
As any of you surly fellows;
Give us our rights and we'll not care
To cheat our brothers of their share.
Above such selfish man-like fright,
We’d give fair play, let come what might,
To he or she folk, black or white,
And haste the reign of Human Right.”
On behalf of Scottish Labour, I am happy to support the Scottish Government motion.
I do not think that four minutes does the subject justice. I lend the Scottish Green Party’s support to the congratulation of the human rights defenders. In talking about gratitude and respect, the Scottish Government minister is speaking for all of us, not least because of the risks—referred to in the motion—at which those individuals put themselves, their families and their communities.
I will touch on the line in the motion that the Parliament
“reaffirms support for, and commitment to, the work…in all states and nations”.
Like the minister, I welcome our visitors, Konstantin and Laura, from Russia and Zambia, two countries in which there are human rights issues. Of course, there are such issues in Egypt, Spain, Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. Abuse is abuse, regardless of the Government, the country where it takes place or allegiances, so I hope that we apply that understanding consistently. The human rights defenders were defined as
“People who, individually or with others, act to promote or defend human rights.”
The Scottish human rights defenders fellowship, which was alluded to, offers a
“short period of respite and protection in Scotland”.
Those are fine words and Scotland is to be commended for the initiative.
I also draw members’ attention to the St Andrews education for Palestinian students—STEPS—programme at the University of St Andrews. That international approach demonstrates the Scotland that I want to talk about. I have mentioned in previous debates the talks that took place at Craigellachie in the early 2000s that involved parliamentarians from the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia discussing the dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. There were also the Edinburgh conversations by small groups of academics and retired military personnel that took place in both Edinburgh and Moscow, which led to the maxim of “no first strike” in nuclear war strategy. That maxim formed the basis of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits that brought an end to the cold war. All involved in those discussions were human rights defenders.
My vision for Scotland is for it to be a base for peace talks for truth and reconciliation and a nation promoting and defending human rights and providing respite and refuge. However, we need to look at things slightly differently. Elaine Smith talked about SNAP 1, which was a great initiative, and I hope that its work will continue in SNAP 2. SNAP involved citizen engagement rather than the usual suspects, so a lot of people became involved. I was very pleased to get an amendment to the police legislation that saw a new oath in place whereby police officers swear to uphold citizens’ human rights. When the human rights lawyer John Scott undertook his review of stop-and-search powers, he referred to police officers as front-line defenders of citizens’ human rights. That is not the situation that we see elsewhere, whether that is Spain, Israel or Russia, where the police are used as instruments of the state, as other members have mentioned. The targeting of journalists is another concern to which members have referred; it involves an attack on the truth and a wish to distort the truth of situations.
Human rights defenders also address the issue of human trafficking. There is a lot of awareness of the indicators of trafficking and slavery and it is important that we appraise the evidence of the trafficking of young women and girls around the planet to satisfy what is called a “growing demand” fuelled by misogyny. I believe that we need to look at all our policies in that area, including our approach to prostitution, in order to assess whether they are helping or hindering human rights. Members also referred to the zero tolerance approach and figures that show a disproportionate impact on women and young girls. I commend the front-line defenders of rights in that area: the trafficking awareness raising alliance—TARA—support service, Scottish Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis and, indeed, Police Scotland. We know about the controlling and coercive behaviour involved in domestic violence, but it is also a feature of human trafficking, whether that is about young women being trafficked into prostitution or about young footballers from Africa.
Human rights are nothing if the state cannot evidence that it is responding to abuses. I support the motion.
I apologise to Mr Finnie, because I have been told that there is now something like five minutes in hand. Members can therefore intervene to their hearts’ content if they wish—you are all on alert. Otherwise, it is open speeches of four minutes, with time for interventions.
I t is, of course, entirely correct that the Parliament highlights the international day of human rights defenders each year in December to reaffirm Scotland’s support for human rights. This year marks 21 years since the UN General Assembly’s adoption of that international day, but it is a sad fact that in 2019 human rights defenders are more needed than ever before, with many countries throughout the world being in the grip of right-wing Governments and dictators who inflict pain and suffering on those trying to uphold the principle of human rights for all.
We should therefore all welcome the establishment of the Scottish human rights defenders fellowship, which aims to promote our staunch support of human rights defenders around the world. That is a major initiative, introduced by the Scottish Government and Amnesty, which aims to provide human rights defenders with a short period of respite and protection in Scotland while they conduct research and interact with students, staff, civil society and Government across Scotland. Participants will spend three months here, combining study at the University of Dundee with the chance to build relationships and share expertise with our excellent Scottish human rights and equality organisations.
Our Government is committed to ensuring that Scotland is a modern, inclusive nation that protects, respects and realises internationally recognised human rights; and we stand shoulder to shoulder with those who put their lives—and often their families’ lives—in danger when trying to uphold our rights. The 2019-20 programme for government reiterates the Scottish Government’s commitment to developing a statutory human rights framework for Scotland, which will be progressed by the national task force for human rights leadership, co-chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, and Professor Alan Miller. It will focus on developing a statutory human rights framework that will enhance the protection of the human rights of every member of Scottish society. Among many other measures, there is the plan that the First Minister announced in April of incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law in this parliamentary session, which I very much welcome.
Last Saturday, my Westminster colleague Stuart McDonald and I took time out from campaigning to take part in Milton of Campsie’s write for rights campaign in support of Amnesty International and supporting persecuted human rights defenders. Every December, we send cards of support and write in protest to the officials and embassies that are involved in their incarceration. This year, I admit that I hesitated to commit time in the weekend before a general election, but I realised that I have the luxury of being able to make that choice, whereas the people whom we contact have no choice. Their liberty has been stripped away, simply for speaking out against injustice.
They are people like Yasaman Aryani. On international women’s day this year, she walked through a train carriage and handed out flowers with her hair uncovered. She spoke of her hopes for a future in which women could have the freedom to choose what they wear and could walk together
“me without the hijab and you with the hijab”.
That was seen as an act of defiance. In April, she was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison, of which she must serve at least 10 years.
Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder are on trial for helping to save the lives of refugees in Lesvos. They were imprisoned on charges of spying, people smuggling and belonging to a criminal organisation and spent more than 100 days in prison before being released on bail. If found guilty at their trial, they could face 25 years in jail. Sean says:
“Humanitarian work isn’t criminal, nor is it heroic ... Helping others should be absolutely normal.”
Time does not allow me to highlight the many similar horrific cases that have been highlighted by Amnesty International. Most involve children and young people and are, frankly, heartbreaking. We know that a hard exit from the European Union will adversely affect human rights in the UK and that Scotland’s democratic right has been breached by a Westminster Government that has ignored the wishes of Scotland’s people to remain in Europe.
That is why now, more than ever, we must stand up for human rights defenders who strive to restore dignity, respect and justice to those most in need in our country and throughout the world.
I am delighted to contribute to today’s debate on reaffirming Scotland’s support for human rights defenders on international human rights day. Their efforts to defend civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights can make a real difference to the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals and peoples. As many of us know, they have been described by Amnesty International as
“some of the bravest people in the world”.
The sensitive nature of their work means that human rights defenders and people close to them, such as their families, can be targeted, and the abuse takes place in their communities. It is often carried out by groups or individuals who want to stop their human rights activities; it could be Governments, security forces, businesses, armed groups and organisations or members of their community who wish them not to go forward and want to ensure that their rights are curtailed.
It is important that we identify that human rights defenders come to the fore when individuals and organisations believe that their power is being compromised or their reputation is being called into question. The defenders tackle and take that on, sometimes ensuring that their safety is put in harm’s way and they can be attacked for being defenders.
Issues range from executions and tor ture to female genital mutilation and healthcare access, and defenders take up all of them to protect and promote democracy across the globe.
Sadly, as we have heard, human rights defenders put themselves at risk, and their work can ensure that they are harassed, subjected to violence, intimidated, detained or even killed. We have heard today that, tragically, in 2018, the number of human rights defenders who were killed was the highest on record: 321 defenders in 27 countries were targeted. More than three quarters—77 per cent—of that total were killed because they were defending land, the environment or indigenous peoples’ rights.
In recent years, some countries have taken the welcome step of adopting laws that seek to protect human rights defenders. Although those declarations are not legally binding, at least they are a step in the right direction.
That means that many human rights defenders, particularly in countries that have poor human rights records, remain at significant risk.
As we have heard, Scotland is playing its part. In her opening remarks, the minister referred to a number of things that are happening. The Scottish human rights defenders fellowship programme needs to be recognised, as well as the skills, safety and partnerships here and our links with Russia and Zambia. Our four international partners participate in the process, and the minister continues to do work in the area. I commend her for her endeavours. We talk about land reform, LGBTI issues and courage. We need to have courage, and it is good that there is courage at the ministerial level. Ministers being prepared to stand up and be counted makes a difference.
My colleague Annie Wells spoke about the targeting of individuals and organisations, including women and journalists, the protection that is required, and how poverty plays a part. It is very welcome that there has been a lead from the UK Government. There is also the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta fund to help. Those things are very important.
Although there is still a long way to go to achieve tolerance and respect for human rights on a global scale, the national task force ensures that there is enhanced protection of human rights for every member of Scotland’s society. We will continue to ensure that we play a leading part in that.
I thank everyone who has given us updates and briefings, and I support the motion.
I am pleased to have been called to speak in this timely debate on human rights defenders on international human rights day. Indeed, it was on 10 December 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Paris 71 years ago today, the leaders of the world agreed to put human rights at the centre of global governance. That was an inspiring moment in history. That milestone document set out for the first time fundamental human rights that were to be universally protected.
Article 1 of the declaration famously states:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The declaration goes on to list a whole series of rights that are deemed to be “inalienable” human rights, including freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, equal protection under the law, the right of asylum from persecution, the right to education, the right to own property, the right to work and the right to life, of course. The prescience that was shown in the drafting of the declaration and the tenets that were set forth in it form the backdrop of all international discourse to this day.
However, as we all know too well, human rights infringements take place day and daily across the globe, including, of course, in the economically advantaged and developed countries of the west. That is an indictment of our world in the 21st century, and it requires as a response from all countries and all citizens a determination to be vigilant in defence of human rights at home and abroad.
That was the genesis of the 1998 UN declaration on human rights defenders, which was adopted on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The
UN declaration on human rights defenders reminded the world that the responsibility to protect human rights lies with all of us and that every person can and should be a human rights defender.
Sadly, although the declaration outlined the duties of states to protect human rights and to respect the work of human rights defenders, Amnesty International has reported that more than 3,500 such defenders have been killed since 1998. Aside from that being a human tragedy, that is truly a chilling statistic, and it reinforces the need to reaffirm support for human rights defenders and the need to engage in discussion about how to make the commitments of the 1998 declaration a reality.
In that regard, I, too, am very proud of the Scottish Government’s response to the challenge in establishing the Scottish human rights defender fellowship last year. As we have heard, a three-month semester at the University of Dundee is involved. Successful candidates have the opportunity in a place of safety to carry on their important work, which would otherwise often be carried out at great personal risk. They can conduct research, develop new skills, build networks and, I hope, return to their countries better equipped to carry on the fight. That is an excellent example of how Scotland can make a contribution and express our solidarity with human rights defenders in other countries.
Here at home, there are many examples of human rights defenders. I wish to mention one perhaps overlooked body of people, and I declare an interest in that I am a lawyer. The Law Society of Scotland rightly highlighted in its submission that many of its members are in fact human rights defenders because they deal daily with issues such as the incorporation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law in Scotland. They also deal with issues such as indefinite detention under Westminster’s ghastly immigration system and consolidation of hate crime legislation in Scotland.
On this day across the world, we see individuals being denied the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, asylum from persecution, education and indeed life itself. It is the responsibility of each of us to protect human rights and to be a human rights defender. We must redouble our efforts in the year ahead to discharge that responsibility.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate, which reaffirms Scotland’s commitment to human rights as we reach the end of our second year of the Scottish Government-sponsored fellowship for human rights defenders, as has been mentioned. We also recognise the 21st anniversary of the declaration on human rights defenders.
As has been said, the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, run by the University of Dundee in collaboration with Amnesty International and front-line defenders, has this year brought fellows Laura Miti and Konstantin Baranov to Scotland. I am sure that my colleagues across the chamber will join me in saying that we appreciate whole-heartedly their dedication to upholding human rights, as the cabinet secretary said earlier. Christina McKelvie was delighted that I said “cabinet secretary” there, but there we go—that is just one of those things. Progress is made when people like those two fellows have the courage and strength to stand up against powerful actors. They do so in the name of human rights and the pursuit of democracy.
It is clear why the topic of human rights defenders remains important and worth discussion in the Parliament. Amnesty International highlighted to MSPs that over the past seven years there have been more than 142 restrictive legal initiatives imposed on civil society in more than 72 countries. Even graver statistics show that, since the declaration on human rights defenders was adopted in 1998, more than 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed. Although the declaration was not legally binding, that underlines how necessary it is for diplomacy to be used to effect change.
The continued affirmation of support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the declaration on human rights defenders by democratic states is incredibly important. It shows what the expected standards of domestic behaviour are, which consequently can be upheld in negotiations and diplomatic efforts in bodies such as the UN or other international or regional political organisations. It is within that dynamic that we debate and reaffirm Scotland’s commitment to human rights and its defenders.
I will also touch on how important human rights defenders are to the development of a flourishing civil society. Human rights defenders exist in spaces where human rights are under threat. Those courageous people continue to speak out about issues affecting society and marginalised groups. They highlight the compromise or complete disregard of human rights. It is in this space that civil society is built.
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines societal issues that are faced by people across all countries. It refers to the right to
“a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of an individual and their family,
“including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond” his or her control. Article 25 contains issues that are frequently debated in the Parliament. For MSPs, civil society not only holds us to account but equips us with the information that we need to make better policies and choices for the people whom we represent.
As my speaking time draws to a close, I again highlight the incredible work of Laura Miti and Konstantin Baranov. I will end by quoting John Stuart Mill’s inaugural address to the University of St Andrews in 1867. His words, which still ring true today, highlight the importance of having courageous human rights defenders across the world. He said:
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Well, we are not going to do nothing.
Enshrining and protecting human rights is one of the most important duties of an elected politician. We are duty bound to stand up and speak out for people when it comes to human rights.
The work of parliamentarians would not be possible without the work of human rights defenders. Those are the individuals who put their own lives at risk in order to protect others and highlight human rights abuses to the wider public. It is vital that we recognise them and all that they do to protect human rights and give voice to issues that may not otherwise be heard. The strength and courage that these people show is admirable. Their commitment to their causes can help us to see where we need to focus our commitment as a society in Scotland and further afield. For those reasons, I support the Scottish Government in championing this Parliament as a defender of human rights.
Many human rights defenders in Scotland are children and young people. They proudly stand up for what they believe in and in order to change the debate nationally and globally. We need look only at the climate strike movement to know that children are playing a massive part in defending human rights across the world. The best way that we can offer support is by listening to them and taking their concerns seriously. They are the future. It is their future, and their understanding and thinking of human rights is often much more long term and sustainable than our own understanding and thinking.
In Scotland, we are fortunate to have various charities supporting care-experienced children, such as Who Cares? Scotland. Care-experienced children have been leading the way in advancing the discussion on children in the care system. Their voices are invaluable and we should support them as they progress their work.
I want to raise a couple of specific issues in the short time that I have available, neither of which will be a surprise to members in the chamber. Human rights are central to ensuring equality. Over the past 20 years, we have seen a political and societal change towards greater equality for the LGBT community. However, there are still challenges ahead, and I hope that we use the rest of this parliamentary session to tackle those challenges and allow the next Parliament to continue the work that still needs to be done.
Despite the advances for overall LGBT equality, the trans community finds itself in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards trans and non-binary people. We as parliamentarians should facilitate discussion. However, we should not tolerate inflammatory language designed to increase hostility. The political landscape should not be used to reinforce myths about the trans and non-binary community. I will always stand with trans rights defenders for the work that they do in Scotland and across the world to protect a minority that is facing increasingly common attacks and discrimination.
Gypsy Travellers continue to be a disadvantaged group, despite the very welcome progress that is being made. That community often faces discrimination from the media, from communities across Scotland and, sadly, from some in political parties reinforcing negative stereotypes. Education, healthcare and housing are human rights. We must do all that we can to defend the rights of the Gypsy Traveller community in Scotland.
I could address a number of other issues, such as the on-going damaging potential of Brexit. However, with the time that I have left, I will raise a couple of small issues that are happening across the globe right now.
In Myanmar, little action has been taken against the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, which some experts have said could be genocide. I welcome the action taken by The Gambia that was reported in the media today.
In China, up to 1.5 million Muslims are being held in so-called re-education camps—let us be in no doubt that those are modern-day concentration camps. Global leaders must stand up to that practice and protect the right to religious observance.
I stand with human rights organisations in condemning those human right violations and commit to continuing to be a human rights defender for all.
Although it has been 21 years since its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1998, the UN declaration on human rights defenders remains relatively unknown in the public sphere. It is not a legally binding instrument, but it comprises a series of principles and rights that are based on the human rights standards that are enshrined in other legally binding international instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
An important part of the declaration’s value derives from the fact that it represents a collective effort, across state and institutional boundaries, to better reiterate, strengthen and embed human rights norms across societies, by way of practical support for human rights defenders.
It is encouraging to note that an increasing number of states are considering adopting the declaration as binding national legislation. We welcome the establishment of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, in partnership with the University of Dundee, and all that will be done to protect those who are at risk as a result of their work protecting human rights around the world; it is a testament to the Scottish Government’s commitment to a modern human rights culture that we do so.
Human rights defenders are defined in the declaration as people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights across the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. The declaration is designed to help human rights defenders be supported and protected while carrying out their work—work that can be dangerous and marginalised in many contexts, as we have heard.
Part of the declaration’s strength is that it speaks to all of us—not just to countries and human rights defenders. Its full title is the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”, which reminds us that we all have a part to play.
Everyone who cares about strengthening and evolving human rights culture in Scotland is deeply concerned about the threat that Brexit poses. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 could allow the removal of the EU charter of fundamental rights from our domestic law, and the Scottish Government’s opposition to that was brushed aside. If Brexit goes ahead, the human rights protections that British citizens currently enjoy will cease to exist, or will be watered down in significant ways across such areas of life as healthcare, social security and privacy.
I welcome the pre-emptive steps that the Scottish Government has taken to ensure that the national task force for human rights leadership considers the best way to enshrine the values of the EU charter of fundamental rights in Scots law. That action sends a strong message about where we stand.
The threat to Scotland’s evolving human rights culture does not stop with the withdrawal act. Former Prime Minister Theresa May was unequivocal that she wanted the statute book on human rights to be torn up. She advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and an abandonment of the ECHR.
The ECHR, in contrast to the declaration on human rights defenders, is well-known in the public sphere. All decisions of public authorities in the UK must be ECHR compliant, and, since 2000, application of the convention has changed law and decision making for the better, in meaningful ways, for ordinary people.
The ECHR is a treaty between the member states of the Council of Europe, not the EU, but that is not the point. Theresa May might be gone, but the threat to human rights in Scotland from the right wing of British politics is real. The ECHR is so involved in the fabric of civic society in this country that it is impossible to imagine having to unpick it due to future regressive action on human rights law, but such a nightmare scenario could happen. We are already too familiar with nightmare scenarios being inflicted on vulnerable people in Scotland and across the UK as a result of austerity and welfare reform policies in recent years.
Today’s debate is an opportune moment, therefore, to remind ourselves of the state’s duties, as laid out in the 1998 UN declaration, and to pledge to continue to support those principles and hold UK Governments to account on them. Those duties include the protection, promotion and implementation of all human rights, not just those which are politically expedient.
Human rights defenders across the world show a level of courage and commitment that deserves to be recognised and supported, and I whole-heartedly do so in this chamber on human rights day. No matter their age, gender or nationality, human rights defenders advocate for fundamental rights. Those individuals can promote anything from improved health standards and greater environmental awareness to children’s rights, anti-discrimination measures and the protection of refugees and minorities, among many other concerns.
We witness the continuous activism of human rights defenders to tackle those concerns and we know that the commitment of human rights defenders, through the sensitive nature of their work and advocacy for the sake of others, often comes at an awful cost to themselves. Indeed, in many countries, those who seek to promote human rights face imprisonment, indefensible attacks and persecution. That trend seems only to be worsening. Increasingly, human rights defenders are subject to harassment, surveillance, enforced disappearance and censorship. That is especially the case in countries that lack an effective rule of law, or experience conflict or extensive state restrictions. Human rights organisations have even witnessed a rise in killings. Indeed, last year saw the highest recorded number of human rights defenders murdered. Of particular concern to me has been the targeted attacks against female campaigners. Facing the risk of harassment, smear campaigns and sexual assault, many of those women continue in their work so that they can make their causes as visible as possible, sparking an international push for solutions.
The protection of and commitment to human rights and those who actively defend them is of paramount importance. This is a shared responsibility that we all need to take on, across Parliaments, Governments and communities. Indeed, the UN declaration on human rights defenders states that every person has a responsibility and a duty to safeguard democracy and to not violate but protect the rights of others. Therefore, we need to actively encourage not just vocal support, but practical support for human rights defenders on the ground. I have seen that in my working life, when I worked in Bosnia and Afghanistan and took a great deal of time to see how people who defend the rights of minorities in those countries were harassed.
International groups, such as Front Line Defenders and ProtectDefenders.eu have led the way in this, offering grants and security measures to those worst affected. Their work makes the experiences of human rights defenders real and truly eye-opening. I welcome the strides in support of these human rights defenders here in Scotland. It is particularly pleasing to see the establishment of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, and I commend the Government for it. The partnership between the Scottish Government and the University of Dundee promises to be an excellent opportunity for participants to spend a semester here in Scotland, sharing expertise with human rights organisations and building relationships. I wish the initiative well.
Furthermore, it is encouraging to see the commitments made by the UK Government. For instance, its paper “UK support for human rights defenders”, released this year, outlined its pledge to create strengthened global standards to protect such individuals, while also providing in-country practical and collaborative support when needed.
This year’s human rights day celebrates the contribution of young people to the human rights movement. Those young human rights defenders can drive the change that we all want to see in the future.
Every human rights defender is deserving of the very security and protection that they advocate on behalf of others. I strongly commend all they do, I welcome Scotland’s renewed commitment to their safety and I support the motion.
It is an honour to speak in this afternoon’s debate in recognition of the 21st anniversary of the international day of human rights defenders. This SNP Government, as we have heard, has dedicated itself to making sure that our nation protects, respects and realises internationally recognised human rights. We all know that we cannot protect human rights in a vacuum, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to demonstrating leadership, both at home and abroad. Scotland should aspire to be a champion of human rights in the global community, and this Government has sought to promote international human rights standards in a manner that has a practical impact.
As already mentioned, and as set out in the motion, the recent establishment of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship is but one example of how the Scottish Government has worked in partnership with other organisations to ensure that we are part of a modern, inclusive nation. We should all welcome and celebrate this initiative.
In her opening speech, the minister talked about children who are human rights defenders. During the equivalent debate last year, I mentioned a young person from my Coatbridge and Chryston constituency, Ryan McShane, who has been an active human rights defender, and there is no reason why I should not take this opportunity to mention him again, not least because I was chatting to him about this debate yesterday, during the First Minister’s visit to Coatbridge, and I think that he would be the first person to hold me to account if I did not mention some of the work that he has been doing, as I said that I would.
As the minister and some members know, Ryan McShane is a care-experienced young person who has been actively defending human rights and holding decision makers to account for some time, as he demonstrated last year when he addressed the First Minister and the Parliament. He has regularly and bravely spoken about the trauma of his experiences in the foster care system, which involved him having many different placements before he found a family that has provided lasting love, understanding and happiness.
I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Ryan’s foster carers and to all carers across the country, including kinship carers, who give children the chance to achieve their potential. Care-experienced young people have the right to have a family such as the one that Ryan has. That should be the norm and a fundamental right.
An issue that members have mentioned in detail—or just remarked on, given the four minutes that speakers have been allocated—is the imminent exit from the EU. It is important that we talk about EU exit, given the current climate, as it has the potential to adversely affect human rights in Scotland and the rest of the UK as long as it remains in the hands of this Tory Government.
Before a member on the Tory benches accuses me of fearmongering, I remind members that Michael Gove, during his tenure as Secretary of State for Justice, said that he wanted to limit the use of human rights laws to the most serious cases, and that his predecessor, Chris Grayling, is on record saying that he does not believe that the European Court of Human Rights
“makes this country a better place”.
On top of that, members should remember that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 prevents the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union from remaining a part of domestic law.
Such an approach, combined with isolation from progressive developments at EU level, will corrode our existing protections and make it more difficult to implement EU-equivalent standards. The best way to prevent that is, of course, by remaining in the EU, but if that does not come to pass, Scotland must—as a minimum—retain both the charter of fundamental rights and the European convention on human rights. That is the best way to protect existing human rights laws.
The Scottish Government and the UK Government have hugely differing opinions on the importance of protecting human rights in this nation. The Scottish Government is taking the right approach and we must be vigilant about policies that seek to undermine human rights in any way.
I again thank human rights defenders across the world for the risks that they take. I reaffirm my support for the motion.
I share our Government’s commitment to ensuring that Scotland is a modern and inclusive nation that protects, respects and realises internationally recognised human rights.
Yesterday, 9 December, was the international day of human rights defenders, and 2019 marks the 21st anniversary of the adoption by the UN’s General Assembly of the UN declaration on human rights defenders.
People who defend human rights across the globe often do so at incredible risk to themselves and their families. Challenging brutality, oppression and injustice carries great risk, and holding powerful people to account, wherever a person is based and whatever power those people have over them, is never risk free.
I welcome the contribution that Scotland is making through the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, which supports people who are at risk through their work to protect human rights around the world. It offers the folk who come here some rest and respite from the daily dangers and threats that are inherent in their work, as well as an opportunity to study, to train and to carry out research to support their human rights work, and an opportunity to connect with civil society organisations and Government officials here in Edinburgh and in London.
As a good global citizen, the Scottish Government is committed to securing democracy, the rule of law and human rights across the world. Scotland was one of the first countries in the world to endorse the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, which are fully embedded in the national performance framework.
When I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs about Spain’s conviction for sedition of the Catalan leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, which has been deemed by Amnesty International to be in violation of human rights because legitimate acts of protest and the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly had, in effect, been criminalised by Spain, I was glad to receive the assurance that
, 20 November 2019; c 30.]
It is so important that Scotland uses its influence whenever possible, and that it acts as an example of best practice when it comes to protecting and enhancing human rights, here and globally.
We live in turbulent times, in a world in which many people’s rights in many countries are under threat, so we in Scotland must stand in solidarity with those who seek freedom and justice through dialogue and democracy.
Here in Scotland, the Scottish Government demonstrates a commitment to human rights in policy making and delivery in a huge number of ways. On the final day of 16 days of activism, I would like not only to recognise the good work in the equally safe strategy, but to acknowledge the work that is still to be done to gain equality for women and girls. So far this year, 90 women have been murdered by their partners. Violence against women is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights: the right to life, the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman and degrading way, and the right not to be discriminated against.
Here in our developed wealthy country, there are still far too many people whose human rights are not realised. I hope that we can have the courage of the human rights defenders whom we host in dealing with those injustices, and that we can be brave, honest and focused as we navigate the challenges of defending rights, particularly where rights can be perceived to be competing. Let us resolve never to shy away from speaking our truth to power, or from listening openly and generously to those who speak theirs to us.
As we have heard, human rights defenders are on the front line of conflict. In fighting against human rights abuses, they put their lives and safety at risk to protect the human rights of strangers. They refuse to walk on the other side of the road—they are modern-day good Samaritans. It is very apt that we are having this debate today, when the exhibition that is display outside the MSP block is on human rights breaches in Syria. It is a moving and harrowing exhibition, and I thank the all-party parliamentary group on Syria for bringing it to the Scottish Parliament.
As many members—including Fulton MacGregor, Ruth Maguire, Alexander Stewart, Rona Mackay, Joan McAlpine and Bill Kidd—have mentioned, although the UN brought in its declaration on human rights defenders in 1998, since then more than 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed. An average of 170 are murdered every year, with 300 having been killed in 2017. Some unscrupulous national authorities and rogue states are targeting human rights defenders and their organisations all the time in an effort to prevent them from carrying out their work. That includes imposing restrictions on funding, freezing assets, imposing travel bans, carrying out reprisals against defenders’ families, and using surveillance and smear campaigns.
Although international relations are, by and large, a reserved matter, Scotland has taken clear steps to support human rights work. Mention has been made of the establishment of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship, which I and many other members strongly support. The fellowship offers support mechanisms, including through providing respite in a safe environment, enabling defenders to broaden their network and share research, and raising the visibility of the work that is carried out.
The German Bundestag has taken that approach one step further by adopting a model of patronage in which each parliamentarian has taken on one individual who is at a high level of risk. They advocate on the person’s behalf and follow developments in their case. Support is also being provided to the families of those who have been imprisoned.
As Elaine Smith said, the Labour Party has a proud history of promoting and defending human rights across the world. She mentioned the campaign against the two-child cap in universal credit, which is clearly against the human rights of women in this country, and we continue to campaign for the right to food to be enshrined in Scots law. On the international stage, the UK Government under Labour intervened in the Balkans, and was widely credited with avoiding widespread genocide and human rights abuses.
The bigger picture is that we need to reform the international rules-based order so that we secure justice and accountability in order to avoid breaches of human rights such as the bombing of hospitals in Syria. It is unbelievable that we are still having to fight against so many flagrant breaches of human rights across the world in 2019, but fight on we must.
As Martin Luther King said in an open letter in 1963,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This has largely been an enjoyable and interesting debate, which has built consensus across the chamber. There have been points when we have strayed from that, which is always a challenge when we discuss such issues. Ruth Maguire captured that point perfectly in her speech when she said that we must be prepared to speak out ourselves when we have concerns, but must also listen to the concerns of others.
There is always a danger, when we discuss human rights, that we take the view that we know best what those rights are, that our views are right, that our opinions are the ones that matter and that we are somehow better than other people.
We all face challenges—within our parties, in our personal approaches to things in life, as a nation in Scotland, as a United Kingdom and as a global community. We all have things that we must face up to on which we do not quite hit the mark. It is always hard, because there is always an urge and a requirement to challenge things that are going wrong, while accepting with humility that we do not always get it right.
That is a very important point, and I absolutely accept that. Sometimes, when it comes to difficult matters, it is easier to listen to people with whom we have an existing relationship and whom we trust. They can help to break down barriers.
We have heard lots of issues being mentioned by members across the chamber today, from the plight of Gypsy Travellers here in Scotland to issues that face women. When we all look within the groups and circles that we associate with, and when we consider the work that we do as MSPs, we see that it is contact with individuals and building of long-term relationships that help to break down our prejudices. That makes me more determined to stand up for things.
In relation to points that have been raised on Brexit, I say gently that although there are legitimate political differences, and although I know that people have fears going into the future, I am confident that here in Scotland and across the United Kingdom we will continue to stand up for human rights. We will continue our proud tradition. Although it is tempting to make a great deal of it, it is important to remember that the decision to leave the EU, although we might not like it, came about as a result of a series of what I think were free and fair elections and a serious referendum. We might not be happy with the result, but it is a push to compare it to challenges that have arisen elsewhere. However, I am listening to what other people have to say today.
I think that the same can be true of a number of things. I gently say to Elaine Smith that the Labour Party has had challenges in relation to human rights quite recently. However, that does not take anything away from the points that members have raised about previous Conservative policies.
However, I speak very firmly for the Scottish Conservatives today, as I have done in the chamber in the past, when I say that our point of view and our policy direction are that we are very keen that the Human Rights Act 1998 be retained. I have said it numerous times, and it is a point that I make consistently as a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament.
We have heard a number of excellent examples of human rights experiences from around the world, from as far afield as Colombia and Egypt. Scotland plays a big role in promoting human rights through offering fellowships and taking other actions. We can provide refuge and we can help people to become more resilient and to take forward their own cases in order to promote their human dignity. The fact that we continue to have challenges in our own country does not stop us from making a positive contribution to the world.
I highlight the speech by my colleague Maurice Corry, who gave a very practical example of what we in the UK can do. We might not always agree on the actions that the UK armed forces take, but when we look at what we did in Bosnia and the Balkans, we can see the positive role that many people from across our United Kingdom played in bringing peace and improved conditions to people who live there. Whatever our constitutional and political differences, it would be widely accepted that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development have played very important roles in raising living standards and promoting rights for many people all around the world.
I return to a point that John Finnie made, which was, for me, the most important point today. It followed, in part, what Annabelle Ewing said about lawyers. Sometimes lawyers get bad press, and sometimes we see human rights as being too legalistic and as being bogged down in that. However, ultimately, lawyers, parliamentarians and all those who are involved in performing tasks on behalf of the state have to live up to human rights standards. As John Finnie said, there has to be recognition that if human rights legislation that is enacted is not enforced, ultimately it means nothing. I close on that point and thank members for giving me much to think about.
I thank all members for their incredibly thoughtful contributions and for demonstrating a clearly held belief in and a shared commitment to human rights. We have had poetry and we have had quotes; sometimes other people’s words can articulate better than we can what we feel in our hearts. That commitment is absolutely integral to the principles on which this Parliament was founded and which are on our mace.
As John Finnie and many other members have said, we reaffirm our support. It is important always to reaffirm and raise the profile of human rights and human rights defenders. The principles of this Parliament emerged from a long history of civil society activism and political campaigning in Scotland. We have united, diverse and wide-ranging views and opinions around a core set of shared values, and a commitment that it really matters that we do the best that we can for all the people of Scotland.
It is particularly fitting that we should mark human rights day 2019 by celebrating the universal shared values represented by the wider international human rights framework. It is also appropriate that we do so with a particular focus on the critical role played by human rights defenders in speaking up for those values daily and in a global context. Everybody who spoke in today’s debate reaffirmed their support for human rights defenders, and we should all continue to do so.
In my opening remarks, I spoke about the Scottish human rights defender fellowship. I could not be prouder of it as an action that this Government has taken. It is just one way that we in Scotland are taking practical action to express solidarity with, and to demonstrate support for, human rights defenders.
Dave Stewart informed us about the work that is going on in the Bundestag. He should be reassured that I am keeping a close eye on all of that as something that perhaps could, one day, be an extension to the work that we do as peer supporters in human rights defenders work.
Both Maurice Corry and Alexander Stewart said that we all need to stand up for human rights, and they are absolutely correct, especially when it comes to decisions that we all have to take. In the spirit of friendship and solidarity, I ask them to please have a wee word with their pals at Westminster about a particular action in their manifesto around Gypsy Travellers. It is not good, and I hope that they will take that piece of work forward and stand up against what I see as—basically—a commitment to wipe out the traditional travelling lifestyle of Gypsy Travellers. I draw their attention to that in a spirit of friendship and solidarity.
I also draw attention to the vital role that is played by civil society partners—such as Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders and SCIAF—in supporting the courageous and inspirational individuals and communities who stand up for human rights around the world. I join Annabelle Ewing and Oliver Mundell in adding the Law Society of Scotland to that list of supporters. Indeed, we have a fantastic human rights defender from the Law Society of Scotland on our Scottish Government task force—we are delighted to have her with us.
Last week, I met again our two 2019 fellows and our key partner organisations to thank them for taking part in the work that we are doing. I know that, as Laura and Konstantin prepare to return home, they do so re-energised and further empowered, and with the knowledge that we in Scotland applaud and support the work that they do. My larger hope for the fellowship is that, through the participation of human rights defenders of their calibre and ability, we can all learn how to better live up to our common obligation to put action to respect, protect and fulfil human rights at the heart of our everyday lives. An aim of the fellowship is that Scotland should be a place of sanctuary, where opportunities can be created to advance peace, as John Finnie talked about. I hope that fellows in our Scottish Government programme take heart from the knowledge that we are all part of a global effort to defend human rights, for all members of our human society.
The struggle to prevent human rights abuses, to give a voice to marginalised people and to continue to advocate and campaign for a world that is founded on democracy, human rights and the rule of law is—as we heard today—a shared endeavour. I recall what an Egyptian human rights defender who was visiting Scotland said a few years ago, in the context of UK Government threats to repeal the Human Rights Act 1988, which we heard a lot about today. He was asked how we in Scotland can best support human rights activists in other countries. His answer was that the most important action that we can take to promote human rights around the world is to defend them right at home. That is a key element of the work that we do.
Rona Mackay raised the individual work that she does locally at home, in her local community, through write for rights and with young people. That is just one of the many ways that we can all take part. I reassure Elaine Smith that, in the human rights work that we do at home, we are committed to a good food nation bill. She should hopefully hear something about that very soon.
That was wise counsel from the Egyptian human rights activist, and it is advice that we should all take to heart. In Scotland, we welcome scrutiny of our record on human rights. I hear what Elaine Smith says about the work that we still have to do around violence against women and gender equality. I hear the same calls from Ruth Maguire, who spoke about the 16 days campaign.
I reassure both of them with a piece of on-going work, which was a recommendation of last year’s national advisory council on women and girls. The First Minister has confirmed proposals for a what works? gender institute to identify and promote best practice, and that the Scottish Government will become a lead partner in a gender beacon collaborative to promote gender equality across public life. We have on-going work that is incredibly important.
However, we will not shrink from the duty, which is incumbent on all members of the community of nations, to hold others to account for their actions in the implementation of common international obligations. Active participation in international processes, including the scrutiny that is exercised by committees and other institutions of the UN and the Council of Europe, is a fundamental part of our human rights commitment.
Fulton MacGregor and Joan McAlpine rightly raised very real concerns about the loss of our ECHR rights due to the current UK Government’s obsession with Brexit. Our willingness to speak out in support of those who stand up for human rights in an individual capacity, in defence of vulnerable and marginalised people, is absolutely fundamental.
John Finnie raised the issues of trafficking and domestic violence, and he will know that we have some of the most world-leading legislation on that, but we should never be complacent and think that that work is done. It is still a work in progress. The starting point is, self-evidently, the action that we take in Scotland to make human rights real for every member of society. Our refreshed national performance framework contains explicit national human rights outcomes, and seven of the 11 national outcomes are linked to the international framework.
We acknowledge that there is more to be done, and as a Government we are guided by human rights as the foundation for everything that we do. I reassure Mary Fee that, in Scotland, when it comes to LGBT rights, we are advancing our proud record. We want to modernise the process for obtaining legal gender recognition, so that it is in line with international best practice in other countries, and the Government intends to consult later this month on a draft bill.
When it comes to children—oh my goodness—are they not an inspiration? We just need to think about some of the young people that we work with. Annie Wells raised the goal of the work of the Children’s Parliament and the children’s human rights defenders. Mary Fee eloquently spoke about our activist children and how they inspire us every day. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human rights day reminds us that we have a duty to deliver human rights, not just for us as adults but for children. I need only mention Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg to illustrate how young voices are driving the debate on global issues. Fulton MacGregor’s inspirational constituent Ryan McShane has worked tirelessly to advance and bring about a human rights change for care-experienced young people. We have such an active community of children; it is absolutely inspirational to hear about the work that they do.
Another reason why I am very proud today is that members of the Scottish Youth Parliament had the opportunity to meet Konstantin and Laura last week. Not only were they very inspiring; they were very inspired by our own human rights defenders.
If we are truly to commit to the vision of a world where human rights are made real for every member of society, we must ensure that the voices of children and young people are at the heart of every stage of that.
Ruth Maguire reminded us that holding powerful people to account can be a dangerous business. As a Government, as a Parliament and as a nation we should challenge ourselves to live up to the vision of a world founded on human rights values. Bill Kidd reminded us of the power of good diplomatic relations, and Ruth Maguire highlighted some of the issues faced by people in Catalonia.
I believe that we in Scotland have a clear vision of the country that we want to be. That vision is articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and firmly rooted in the international human rights framework that gives it effect. That is why the work of the task force, as discussed by Rona Mackay, will be absolutely pivotal.
I turn to John Finnie’s intervention on Oliver Mundell’s speech, in which he said that sometimes the best advice that we can take comes from our friends. In that spirit of friendship, I invite every member here to take a stand as a human rights defender and to support the practical steps that we need to take to overcome our own barriers and make our own vision a reality—not just for Scotland, but for a wider global future in which every member of humanity can live, secure in the knowledge that we are truly born free and equal in dignity and respect.