This blog is a part of a series of expert blogs commenting on how Brexit may affect human rights in a variety of sectors. This contribution is from Mhairi Snowden, Coordinator of the Human Rights Consortium Scotland - Scotland’s civil society network to protect and promote human rights. One of the Consortium’s projects - the Civil Society Brexit Project - is a partnership with the Scottish Universities Legal Network on Europe (SULNE), funded by The Legal Education Foundation.

Please note, this is a guest blog and views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of BIHR.

We together declare that human rights and equalities must remain at the heart of Scottish society.

We share profound concerns about the potential loss of equality and rights protections as a consequence of the UK leaving the EU & about the persistent negative rhetoric around the protection and promotion of rights in the UK.

We want Scotland to be a leader and not a laggard in human rights terms.We therefore call on law and policy makers to take all possible steps to protect our rights and to make Scotland a world leader in rights protection and implementation….

So states the Scotland Declaration on Human Rights, supported by over 175 civil society organisations in the midst of huge concern about what Brexit might mean for our human rights. 

Scottish civil society is concerned that our rights and equality statutory framework will be gradually eroded and that we will become the ‘poor cousin’ of Europe on rights. They are concerned about the impact on EU citizens of being brought into a hostile immigration system that has a disregard for people’s dignity. They are concerned that fewer EU citizens in Scotland will mean the rights of disabled people, older people and others to health, education, inclusion and independent living will increasingly go unmet. And if the EU funding that supports vital services is not replaced by funding that tackles poverty and not just growth in GDP, then we will see many of our most disadvantaged communities facing additional but entirely avoidable barriers to having their rights realised.

It is in the midst of this concern about rights regression that the First Minister set up an Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership.  The Group’s recommendations set an ambitious direction for human rights in Scotland, proposing that economic, social, cultural and environmental rights be brought directly into Scots law.  It recommended that there should be additional protection for specific groups such as women, older people, disabled people, LGBTi people, children and on race.  The new law should include both a duty ‘to have regard’ and a duty ‘to comply’, and should be developed with wide participation. There must be an emphasis on law implementation and capacity building, and ensuring that what is required for everyday rights accountability is in place.

The Scottish Government agreed to these recommendations and established a National Taskforce to oversee its implementation, including the Consortium to represent civil society. Alongside this, the Government will incorporate the UNCRC by Feb 2021.

The thing is – all of this could have happened whilst the UK remained within the EU. Indeed, there has been steadily increasing support for children’s, economic, social and cultural rights to be in Scots law for many years.

But if anything, Brexit has led to a heightened concern and sense of urgency around the need to safeguard our progress on human rights from any negative fallout from leaving the EU.

Of course, there is much to be done.  Too often, human rights in Scotland are something that is rhetoric-heavy and implementation-light.  For example, Scotland continues to have 1 in 5 of our population living in poverty, only 42% of disabled people in work compared to 80% of non-disabled people, and widespread racism in schools. Much more needs to be done to create a human rights culture that is embedded in priority-setting, policies, practice and budgets.

And we need to make sure that in our post-Brexit relative isolation, we don’t fall behind in rights protections.  A new Continuity Bill will be introduced to the Scottish Parliament in coming months that will include environmental rights protection and clauses around keeping pace with the EU. The Scottish Government are exploring ways to retain the principles of the Charter on Fundamental Rights.

But many of the Brexit impacts on EU citizens and our communities remain a considerable concern.  As part of our Civil Society Brexit Project, we have looked at some of the detail of what these impacts might be - see www.civilsocietybrexit.scot for details.  This next phase of Brexit-related development & negotiation must be shaped by the participation and voice of rights-holders. More than ever before, we need to work well across the UK to draw on the strengths of devolution to advocate for and defend human rights across borders, at all levels and for whoever you are.

In May 2019 we co-organised a conference in Belfast titled Brexit, Civil Society and Devolution. To quote one of the participants at that event,

‘what kind of country, what kind of society do we want to be after we have navigated what lies ahead in the next few months?’

In answer, we want - and need - to be a country and society that prioritises the protection and realisation of human rights.