Carole Ewart argues human rights are the framework for a fair society
A child witness project in Canada evaluated its service after ten years. Respondents, by this time adults, were asked which part of the service had the biggest impact and one replied the worker handing her a tissue when she was crying in the witness box. Until the system was reformed to be human rights compliant for both victims and the accused such behaviour would have been interpreted as coaching the witness and, therefore, forbidden. Enabling the child to have dignity and respect when giving evidence against her abuser, who had violated her human rights, was crucial to the successful delivery of the service.
This good news story about the impact of human rights contrasts with its sustained demonization by politicians and some media, portrayed as friend only to the prisoner, terrorist and generally undeserving. That strategy contradicts international law which states that human rights are to be equally enjoyed and entitle each of us to basic economic, social, cultural, civil, political and environmental rights from which we realise our dignity as individuals.
The right to a decent standard of living, the right to social insurance, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health are to be progressively realised and to the maximum extent of Britain’s available resources. Collective rights are also set out such as the right to join a union so that one’s interests are represented. These internationally agreed human rights sit uncomfortably with the British Government’s austerity strategy. The political gain in marginalising an asset and making it a liability is that the Westminster government can use its power to promote an ideology rather than being constrained in practice by international human rights standards.
Ensuring human rights principles and standards are respected and promoted in the design, delivery and funding of public services will re-balance power between people and government, and deliver a more just and fair society. People can assert their rights and the government, via public sector agencies, has a duty to proactively deliver those. Unsurprisingly, politicians have invested so much effort into convincing us that human rights are the problem rather than the solution to the injustices that face too many people in our rich nation.
The Labour Government was guilty of this tactic too and was criticised by MPs, as far back as 2010, for not delivering on the very Act it introduced in 1998: ‘The Government is, of course, to be commended for introducing the Human Rights Act; but too often subsequently there has been a lack of leadership to use the Act to its full potential, ensure that public bodies promote human rights as well as do the minimum necessary to comply with the legislation’ (House of Commons House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights Paragraph 20, 2010).
Now the Conservative Government thinks it can get away with abolishing the Human Rights Act and maybe even withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Instead of Russia initiating a fracture in compliance with European human rights standards and remedies, it could actually be Britain.
How mortifying, but we need to park the emotion and focus upon mounting an effective and inclusive campaign of opposition and therein lies the problem. Domestic human rights activism has been notoriously weak in Scotland and possibly that is part of the political calculation that ultimately there will be no broad coalition of sustained action in support of human rights. A strong campaign needs people and influential organisations who are persuaded of the relevance of human rights to everyday problems.
Public support is thin on the ground as British-wide polling by the Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF, http://www.equally-ours.org.uk/) showed those who are pro-human rights make up 22% of the populace; those who are conflicted are 41%, uninterested 11% and anti 26%. The sample size from Scotland, although small, confirms similar views although polling was done before the referendum and the general election. Contradicting the propaganda that human rights are bad as well as persuading people that not only should human rights be equally enjoyed but that they are relevant is a bit of a mountain to climb in a comparatively short time. So we need some big wins and quickly.
There needs to be knowledge building and sharing using respected institutions. For example, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2001 pointed out that poverty is: ‘a global phenomenon experienced in varying degrees by all States … While the common theme underlying poor peoples’ experiences is one of powerlessness, human rights can empower individuals and communities. The challenge is to connect the powerless with the empowering potential of human rights. Although human rights are not a panacea, they can help to equalize the distribution and exercise of power within and between societies’.
More recently, the UN recognised that in the global economy there is a role for private companies to adopt a ‘respect, protect and remedy framework on human rights within their sphere of influence’. No longer is it just up to governments to deliver on human rights. The UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on business and human rights have influenced the Scottish Government which is in the process of commissioning a baseline survey to develop an action plan on business and human rights so that companies based in Scotland comply domestically and in their work globally. That may prove challenging to the political ideology on austerity in Britain.
Working family tax credit is being culled as the Tory Government rolls out delivery of its manifesto promise to cut a further £12bn from the welfare bill. This ‘welfare’ payment is paid to the in-work poor so reductions in tax credits are likely to lead to increased child and family poverty. Such actions are regressive which contradicts international human rights obligations.
According to research from Citizens UK, our low pay culture is costing tax payers £11 billion per year. Too many people are in work but poor. Over 5.24m people in Britain, 22% of all employees, are earning less than the Living Wage (http://www.citizensuk.org/taxpayer). The research shows some of the UK’s largest retailers businesses are benefiting a low wage strategy with Tesco paying £519m in tax but receiving £364m in public subsidy for its 209,000 low-paid workers.
Ultimately, we need to give effect to the new politics in Scotland and work effectively with likeminded people including sympathetic Conservatives. A cross-party coalition working with unions and civil society in support of the Human Rights Act is possible and tests us to think differently about how to achieve the best results using our public services. Mainstreaming human rights in Scotland will rebalance the power relationships between government and people, and between businesses and workers to make our democracy stronger and poverty a thing of the past. That does not need to be a party political issue.
Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant. She is also a member of the Jimmy Reid Foundation project board and, in this connection, will shortly be publishing a major paper on the issues of workers’ rights as human rights for the Foundation. For more information on human rights in Scotland see https://hrcscotland.wordpress.com/