Our international obligations

Proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  sets out, for the first time, the human rights that belong to every person.

A range of international legislation, treaties and conventions have been established since then to implement the Universal Declaration and to set out further rights. We work with UK and international organisations to safeguard and promote the increasing observance of these standards and obligations.

Although the UK is the state party to these treaties, they encompass both reserved and devolved matters. Therefore, in many areas it is for Scotland as a devolved administration to consider, observe and implement the treaty rights.

For each of the instruments, a committee of experts monitors implementation and regularly reviews each state party. We actively participate in reviews of the UK, including through contributing to UK state party reports so that they reflect Scotland’s distinctive approach to protecting and promoting human rights.

We also often publish our own position statements to provide a fuller account of activity in Scotland to give effect to the rights in each treaty. You can find a summary of our recent treaty reporting activity in Annex A of our October 2022 position statement for the Universal Periodic Review.

United Nations

There are nine core international human rights instruments, of which seven have been ratified by the UK:

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  • UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT)
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCR)

The two that the UK has not ratified are:

  • Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families
  • Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Optional protocols

Several of the United Nations human rights treaties listed above are supplemented by optional protocols dealing with specific concerns or, in the case of the Convention against Torture, establishing a committee of experts:

  • Optional Protocol to ICESCR
  • First Optional Protocol to ICCPR
  • Second Optional Protocol to ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (ratified by the UK)
  • Optional Protocol to CEDAW (ratified by the UK)
  • Optional protocol to UNCRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict (ratified by the UK)
  • Optional protocol to UNCRC on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography (ratified by the UK)
  • Optional Protocol to UNCRC on a communications procedure
  • Optional Protocol to UNCAT (ratified by the UK)
  • Optional Protocol to CRPD (ratified by the UK)

UN Special Rapporteurs

Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.

In November 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights conducted a country visit to the UK. During this visit, Professor Alston spent two days in Scotland, where he met Scottish Ministers, MSPs, as well as individuals with experience of living in poverty, representatives of communities and civil society organisations. Professor Alton’s end of visit report is available on the UN website.  The Scottish Government have acknowledged his report and have published their own detailed response. 

In February 2021, the Scottish Government responded to a letter sent to the UK by the UN Special Rapporteurs responsible for food and poverty.  In their joint letter the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the right to food (Professor Michael Fakhri) and on extreme poverty and human rights (Professor Olivier De Schutter) drew attention to the deepening level of food insecurity among low income households in the UK, in particular for families with children, and the lack of comprehensive measures to ensure access to adequate food.

In October 2022, the First Minister met the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders to discuss the vital role of human rights defenders.

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe’s core mission is to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent. It is made up 47 Members States, including all 28 European Union countries.

All Council of Europe members have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Drafted in 1950, the Convention protects rights such as the right to life and a fair trial; freedom of expression, and thought, conscience and religion; and prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Human Rights Act 1998 brought the Convention rights into UK law. It requires every public authority in Scotland to act compatibly with the Convention rights and enables human rights cases to be taken in domestic courts.

If all domestic avenues have been exhausted, it might be possible for an individual to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Court interprets and applies the rights set out in the Convention.

Other Council of Europe treaties that have been signed and ratified by the UK are:

  • European Social Charter
  • European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment
  • European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages
  • Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
  • European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings
  • Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (“Lanzarote Convention”)
  • Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence ('Istanbul Convention') (ratified July 2022)

The UK has signed but not yet ratified the Revised European Social Charter

International Labour Organisation (ILO)

The ILO brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member states to set labour standards and promote decent work for all.

In 1998, the ILO produced the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which establishes core labour standards set out in eight conventions:

  • freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining - Convention no. 87 and 98
  • the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour - Convention no. 29 and 105
  • the effective abolition of child labour - Convention no. 138 and 182
  • the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation - Convention no. 100 and 111

All ILO members, even if they have not ratified the conventions in question, have an obligation to respect, promote and realise these principles.

Other human rights standards

  • Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union
  • UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
  • UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (“Aarhus Convention”)
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
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