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09/12/15 11:46

SNAP Human Rights Innovation Forum

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh
9 December 2015

Thank you, Alan (Miller). Today’s event might be one of the last occasions when I get the privilege of share a platform with Alan in his capacity as Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission. As many of you will know, he is due to stand down in early March.

I think it is appropriate that I begin today by paying tribute to him personally, because his contribution to human rights and the human rights landscape in Scotland and indeed further afield has been absolutely immeasurable.

Thank you Alan for all that you have done. And thank you to the Commission more widely. The Commission, under Alan has seen such major progress in how we consider and implement our human rights obligations in Scotland and I think he can be rightly proud of that.

I hope today’s conference will help us to make even greater progress in the future. I’m delighted to see so many people here, and I’m especially pleased to welcome our guests from Germany, Finland and the United Nations.

We’re meeting, as you know, on the eve of International Human Rights Day, which commemorates the signing on 10 December 1948 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Events around the world are focussing on the fact that next year, in 2016, we will mark the 50th anniversary of two of the foundation treaties of our international human rights framework – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Those covenants were part of the process which incorporated the principles of the UN Declaration into the laws of participating states. They were therefore important milestones in the ongoing process – which is such a focus of today’s event – of reflecting human rights principles in the daily practice of individual states.

Tomorrow also marks the second anniversary of the launch of Scotland’s National Action Plan for human rights – which for us is a key part of how we do that, of how we embed human rights considerations into the day to day business of government. I was proud to speak at the plan’s launch, together with Alan.

Nils Muižnieks - who we've just seen on video – also endorsed the Action Plan that day. I am delighted it has subsequently been praised by the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Action Plan is of course relevant to what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the plan’s importance, and how it fits into our wider vision as a government. And I’ll stress our determination to do even more and be even better at incorporating human rights in making policy and delivering services.

But I’ll start by making an additional, but given where we are very important point. Since there is of course an additional reason why it’s vital this year to promote the value of human rights.

We don’t yet know any details of the UK government’s proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act. The plans appear to have been mired in confusion, almost from the moment they were announced.

I’ve spoken in detail about this issue on other occasions – but I want to restate briefly the Scottish government’s position today. The Scottish government values the Human Rights Act. We see it as a proportionate, pragmatic and progressive way of ensuring that the protections of the European Convention of Human Rights can be taken into account by UK courts. We see those protections as being essential to any civilised society. And they are especially important to those with least power.

So we will argue strongly against repeal at Westminster, and – since human rights is a devolved issue, and Convention rights are embedded into the devolution settlement - we will also argue strongly that repeal will require a legislative consent motion in the Scottish Parliament. I see no prospect whatsoever of such consent being granted.

In other words, we will do absolutely everything we can to oppose the Act’s repeal – in Scotland and across the whole of the UK.

But the Scottish Government wants to go beyond simply defending the Human Rights Act and the European Convention – hugely important though that is. In our view, the protections offered by the Act and the Convention should represent a floor rather than a ceiling. We should be looking to go further.

In fact the key challenge for progressive governments is not finding ways to avoid human rights responsibilities - it is finding ways to embed those responsibilities across different areas of policy. That’s what Scotland’s National Action Plan does.

It sets out seven outcomes. These include empowering each of us to understand and embrace the value of human rights, implementing Scotland’s international human rights obligations, and reducing inequality of opportunity and outcomes.

Each of these outcomes is consistent with Scotland’s National Performance Framework and also with the Sustainable Development Goals - which Scotland announced we would sign up to during the summer. It’s an approach which ensures that people’s rights are placed at the centre of policy-making. And it’s achieving practical results.

In August and September, a pilot project with Perth and Kinross Council brought together local people and public bodies. They considered how human rights directly affect individuals and local public services.

As a result, ideas have been proposed relating to education and raising awareness. The lessons learned from the local pilot will be shared around the country.

That sort of project is important because at the moment, the people who might most benefit most from human rights are often the people who are least aware of them.

And local service providers might sometimes see human rights as applying only in extreme conditions, rather than being relevant to their daily work. So bringing people together to think about their rights and their public services is potentially a hugely valuable approach.

You can see even more clearly the benefits of the action plan in specific policy areas. The Justice and Safety group convened a series of roundtables where those of us with duties to protect human rights – government, police - discussed those duties with rights organisations.

That has contributed to progress on key areas such as stop and search in policing, justice for victims of historic abuse, reducing hate crime and ending violence against women.

Another good example is health and social care. For example in reviewing the National Care Standards, basic human rights - the right to privacy, to life, to freedom from inhumane treatment – have all been considered in detail. That’s an important way of ensuring that people who receive care know that their needs will be met and their dignity will be respected.

All of these initiatives – these specific steps to implement the action plan and put human rights at the very heart of all of our decision making – are part of a wider approach to government. It’s one which values human dignity; recognises human potential; and encourages everyone to flourish in our society.

There’s a parallel here with Germany – and it’s very appropriate that Michael Windfuhr is here today. Article 1 of post-war Germany’s constitution places human dignity as the underpinning principle of the entire state. That feeds into concepts such as the constitutional principle of the “social state” – a state which strives for social justice.

That core principle – a state that is striving for social justice – is similar to what we want to see in Scotland.

It’s relevant to our international work and one of the reasons why I was making the case for climate justice at the climate change discussions in Paris on Monday.

But it’s also directly relevant to our work here in Scotland. A good example of that is our emphasis on fair work. I’m speaking tomorrow at an event in Glasgow to oppose the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill. That bill an extraordinary assault on some of the social and economic rights we have come to take for granted in the UK.

Liberty has called it an “unnecessary and unjustified intrusion by the state into the freedom of association and assembly of trade union members.”

And it’s based on an approach to labour relations that the Scottish Government doesn’t recognise. We see trade unions as partners not as opponents. We want to work with unions and businesses to raise productivity and improve workplace conditions.

That’s why we celebrate employee involvement in decision-making, a commitment to the living wage, and gender equality as hallmarks of good employers, alongside business practices such as innovation and internationalisation. That approach to fair work is a way of encouraging participation among the workforce, and good workplace conditions, in a way that benefits businesses as well as workers.

Another example of how we can put strengthened rights at the heart of our decision making is the Self-directed Support Act. It seeks to give individuals more control over the support they receive - whether they are children, homeless people, recent offenders or people recovering from addiction.

The Act helps individuals to live a more independent life and to achieve their social, educational and employment ambitions.

That is how we are seeking across a whole range of decision making to embed human rights at the heart of everything we do.

This is important to us now, but it is will become increasingly important as our parliament assumes new powers, as we gain, for example, new powers over welfare, which are not as extensive as I would like to see but nevertheless important. We are determined to ensure that the dignity of the individual is at the heart of the services we provide.

The basic principle of ensuring true equality of opportunity – of enabling everyone to contribute fully to society – is an issue of human rights. It’s about ensuring people are free from discrimination and fear – and it’s also about tackling the social and economic disadvantage which harms people’s health and wellbeing and reduces access to educational opportunities.

Human rights are therefore central to our concept of inclusive growth – the concept we have put at the heart of our strategy of building a stronger economy and a fairer society.

That’s why I so warmly welcome the growing interest in the role that human rights – including economic and social rights - can play in achieving the wealthier and fairer society we are seeking to create.

And I also welcome the fact that today’s event will explore implementing and incorporating into Scots law some of the key international human rights treaties – for example the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women.

Incorporation is important, but it’s also important to recognise that it isn’t a perfect solution, it won’t automatically mean that policy-making improves and that rights are better represented. But it does have a role to play alongside other substantive steps that we must take. It is an important part of the debate on how we go further in ensuing that people’s rights are at the heart of everything we do.

And it demonstrates once again the stark contrast that exists between our approach and that of the UK Government. The UK is seriously considering how to repeal the Human Rights Act – the most important Act to incorporate our international obligations into domestic law at a time we should be doing the opposite – looking at how we incorporate some of the other treaties and rights into our domestic law.

The Scottish Government wants to explore in detail how we embed those principles of human rights into everything that we do. And as part of that – and this is the final point I want to make – we will look further at how we measure and report on our compliance with our human rights obligations.

When I was in Paris at the climate change talks on Monday one of the themes running through all of the discussions was the need for greater scrutiny – particularly in developed countries - on the relationship between what countries say and what they do. That poses a challenge for all of us, but it is a challenge we should embrace. And if it’s true when it comes to climate change, it is also true when it comes to human rights.

If we are going to talk as we do about the importance of human rights, we have to be able to demonstrate how we apply that in our day to day policy making.

When we signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals in the summer, I promised to reflect those goals within our National Performance Framework and I do make the same pledge today in relation to the Action Plan.

We should integrate our performance framework with the sustainable development goals and the action plan.

Doing that will make Scotland a world leader. It means that we will truly – not just in words but in action - be putting human rights at the heart of how we assess our national performance as a country.

I mentioned at the beginning that tomorrow's human rights day marks the anniversary of the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. When the UN Declaration was 10 years old - in 1958 - one of its architects, Eleanor Roosevelt, made a famous speech.

She said that universal human rights begin in:
The world of the individual person; the neighbourhood they live in; the school or college they attend; the factory, farm, or office where they work...Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.

That is as true today as it was when Eleanor Roosevelt uttered those words all those years ago.

Ensuring that rights are not just grand things we talk about but have meaning for individuals - in neighbourhoods, schools, hospitals, workplaces – that’s the key aim of Scotland’s action plan, and it’s an ambition for the Scottish government more generally.

If we achieve that we will come so much closer to being a country which values every person’s dignity, and respects every person’s potential. And we will take a significant step towards creating a more prosperous, fairer, happier society.

The discussions today can play a part in achieving that, which is why I am so delighted to be here, and I wish you all well for a productive morning.