Whose side are we on - Will Scotland's charities get off the fence on the Referendum question?

Last week, we and many of the other charities in Scotland we work closely with, were surprised by a U-turn by the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) who announced that charities can campaign openly for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote in next year's referendum on Scottish independence, as well as funding referendum-related events and causes, provided the work is “…in pursuit of their charitable purposes.”

The OSCR said that despite the legal prohibition on charities supporting political parties, the significance and potential impact on their work of independence – or continuing within the UK – made it of obvious concern to the sector. This welcome news could prove challenging for some charities.

One of our third-sector colleagues, Martin Sime of Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations, asked why widely-supported organisations shouldn’t actively participate in campaigning when this furthers their (charitable) purposes and represents the views of the organisation’s constituency – we agree with this view.

Whilst it is important to have rules about charitable purpose that prevent engagement in activity which furthers a particular political party, we must remember this is a unique situation. The referendum is a constitutional decision that, whatever the outcome, will have ramifications for centuries. The vote must be seen in this constitutional context rather than as a choice between parties, in Scotland or Westminster.

With 16,500 Amnesty International members in Scotland, we are particularly keen to enter the referendum debate. The fact that we are holding a referendum at all is rooted in internationally-recognised human rights commitments. Growing out of two world wars and championed by Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) will celebrate its 65th birthday this December. The right to participate in the government of a country, and for the will of the people to be the basis of the authority of government, is enshrined in Article 21 of the UDHR.

The referendum is a tangible demonstration of these human rights protections which will face the ultimate test on 18 September 2014 when people living in Scotland will be given the opportunity to decide whether the country should be independent or not.

The vote is a test of our constitution but also of the place of human rights in Scotland, regardless of the outcome. In the Scottish Government paper Scotland's Future; from the Referendum to Independence and a Written Constitution, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committed to bringing Scotland fully into the European mainstream of human rights protection. This could be considered the opposite of recent statements made by Home Secretary Theresa May.

In his Better Together campaign address in Edinburgh last month, William Hague spoke of the UK's standing as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and how this has enabled the UK Government to set a human rights agenda internationally. He cited the recent achievement of an International Arms Trade Treaty which he said, with the best will in the world, an independent Scotland would not have the global standing and influence to deliver.

Questions about politics and human rights are often complex. The referendum has been reduced (after much debate and legal opinion) to a simple question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Answer: Yes or No.

This is an opportunity for the Yes and Better Together campaigns (as well as the political parties) to let us know their plans to protect and realise human rights domestically and internationally, whatever the outcome of the vote may be.  That is a complex question we look forward to hearing the answer to.

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