When it comes to human rights in Scotland, talk is cheap. Nicola Sturgeon recently received the recommendations of her Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, the body established to plot a course for Scotland to become a global leader on human rights. It’s now clear this was a pointless exercise.
That group was headed by Professor Alan Miller, former chair of the Scottish Human Rights commission. Professor Miller is a globally respected man but I’m sorry to say that following a series of regressive policy decisions, we have wasted his time.
Our politicians talk in grave and sanctimonious terms about human rights atrocities overseas; they offer stern reflection on gay rights abuse in Russia or religious persecution in China but in reality, as a human rights defender we don’t have much of a leg to stand on.
I recently wrote in these pages that the SNP was shepherding a bill through Parliament which would finally lift the age of criminal responsibility in the country from the medieval level at which it is currently set at 8 to 12. This sounds progressive but not when you understand that the international minimum prescribed by the UN is in fact 14.
The international community actually intervened on our consideration of this bill twice, in unprecedented fashion and in the strongest of terms but to no avail. To preserve its fragile base of voters, the SNP sided with the Conservative party and decided to go for the least amount of change possible.
That decision has holed below the waterline our ability to offer criticism on human rights internationally.
We might seek to challenge China and Russia on a range of fronts but those countries have ages of criminal responsibility set at 14 and 15 respectively. As such, they could simply turn to us and state: ‘We will take no lessons on adherence to international human rights standards from the likes of you.’ And they’d have a point.
Scotland’s children’s commissioner recently offered the government further rebuke after it came to light that restraint of children with additional support needs in Scottish schools was falling well below international standards.
A child with a mental age of three was left traumatised and distraught after being locked in a school cloakroom. There are also reports of children being tied to chairs, prevented from going to the toilet and dragged across the floor, causing injury.
The Commissioner revealed that the Scottish Government is not complying with the advice of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and argued that government-issued guidance is inconsistent, ambiguous and that restraint is seldom used as a tool of last resort.
This is simply not good enough.
To be a global leader in the field of human rights, we need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. When the Council of Europe challenged the Minister for Children and Young People to use the Age of Criminal Responsibility legislation to lift the age to 14, the Minister replied by suggesting that, as Scotland’s children’s hearings system was so unique and well regarded, we should expect an exemption from the minimum standards of international expectation.
To lean on a perceived sense of exceptionalism like that is a national embarrassment. When it comes to international human rights standards and expectations nobody gets a pass.
They should not speak of their record with pride and until we resolve the human rights failings of our own country. As things stand we can’t possibly expect to earn the mantle of human rights leader on a global stage.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.