Getting the Rights Answers
Richard Hamer is Amnesty Scotland's Interim Programme Director.
Oil, defence, the economy, the European Union and the Pound – a glance at the headlines would give the impression that these are the subjects which matter most to the people of Scotland, and indeed, they have dominated the debate about which way is the right way forward for the country.
It’s true that they’re important issues; they affect us all directly or indirectly. But they’re also the routine fodder of parliamentary elections not historical events which will have an impact for generations to come.
On 18 September we’re voting either to form a new state or to remain in a union with three other nations. Surely this deserves a bit deeper consideration than that which we give to voting for a government?
Shouldn’t we, for example, be talking about what either option would mean for our basic entitlements and freedoms? And what protection these would be given by those who would govern us?
Why is it that these basic entitlements and freedoms – our human rights – haven’t been more noticeable in the bartering for referendum votes?
It’s not that they’ve been completely overlooked. The Scottish Government’s White Paper talks of how an independent state could protect human rights, but makes no promises. The UK Government has limited itself to a legal analysis of what independence would mean in terms of human rights treaties.
But there are, of course, some good reasons why human rights haven’t been higher on the Referendum agenda. Firstly, to many they are as hard to grasp and relate to everyday life as the outcome of the Referendum itself.
Secondly, they can be seen as unnecessary in our developed world, where we have good norms of behaviour by the government and our fellow citizens. If they’re valuable anywhere, the argument goes, it’s in those ‘bad’ countries overseas.
Lastly, there’s the prevailing negativity about human rights. We have all read the sensationalist headlines proclaiming human rights are nothing more than protections for prisoners granting them an easy life and satellite TV. It seems that, following some targeted influencing by those in politics and the media, many have formed a view that human rights offer protection solely for prisoners, terrorists or so-called illegal immigrants.
The truth is, they don’t. Our human rights, as defined following the horrors of World War Two, are regularly invoked for good reason in the Scottish courts. They’ve been used to clarify the law on adoption, to determine whether medical staff can choose not to take part in certain medical procedures, and to establish tenancy rights on farmland, for example.
In the English courts, they’ve been used to address negligent deaths in the NHS and to stop people being put into care as a cost-cutting measure. Overseas, they’ve protected welfare benefits and pensions.
Whilst these demonstrate the value of recognising human rights, we shouldn’t be complacent. Neither the UK nor the Scottish Government has used the powers available to them to embed human rights in our legislation. And that’s despite successive UK Governments signing treaties that oblige us to respect and protect human rights at home and abroad.
It’s time to start thinking more fundamentally about what we want from those who will govern us after the Referendum. Our human rights seem like a good starting point.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.