Building a New Scotland: An independent Scotland's Place in the World

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's proposals for an independent Scotland's place in the world.

An independent Scotland as a good global citizen

Key points

An independent Scotland would take its own decisions on international policy – reflecting our national interests and our consistent focus on being a good global citizen.

With independence, this Scottish Government would commit to meet the UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income on official development assistance. An independent Scotland would also be able to enshrine the 0.7% commitment in law. This would enable an independent Scotland to play its full part in tackling global poverty.

In an independent Scotland, this Scottish Government would establish a dedicated ministerial portfolio to manage work in international development. This would be crucial for the work to have focus, budget and scale in government.

An independent Scotland could build on our work to date to be a world-leader in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises, making a positive contribution to the planet and its people.

With independence, Scotland would have the opportunity to become a state party to treaties, conventions or agreements which the UK has not signed or ratified. These include the Revised European Social Charter, which provides a range of rights on pay, workers’ rights and representation, and working hours, amongst others.

As set out in ‘Building a New Scotland: Migration to Scotland after independence,’ this Scottish Government would make the refugee and asylum system fairer, more streamlined and more dignified in an independent Scotland.

Scotland is already active and engaged internationally, playing as full a role as current powers allow.

For example, this Scottish Government has demonstrated leadership in multilateral forums, receiving global recognition for establishing the Edinburgh Process on Biodiversity[63] – promoting global advocacy at local and subnational levels of government. At COP26, Scotland became the first developed country to pledge Loss and Damage finance to support vulnerable communities to address the impacts of climate change, tackle structural inequalities and recover from climate- related loss and damage.[64]

Scotland already contributes to the development of international human rights, engaging with institutions such as the UN and the Council of Europe and publishing detailed reports on Scotland’s compliance with international obligations.[65]

The Scottish Government has strong relationships with partners around the world. This is demonstrated through initiatives such as the Scotland-Ireland Bilateral Review,[66] and the Global Goals Partnership Agreement with Malawi,[67] on which we can build.

The Scottish Government’s international development programmes help to tackle poverty, injustice and inequality. Our Humanitarian Emergency Fund responds to the impact of natural disasters, disease and conflict.[68] The Scottish Government also supports wider human rights and humanitarian initiatives, including collaboration with the University of Dundee, Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders to deliver the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship.[69]

Scotland currently has an international network of nine government offices and more than 30 trade and investment offices. This network operates within the parameters of the devolution settlement and provides a strong basis from which to grow our international presence after independence.

In short, Scotland is already making a valuable contribution on the world stage. With the powers of independence, we could build on our existing strengths and take our place as a state among equals in the global community. Scotland will always aim to be a good global citizen. As covered further below, independence would give us the chance to do much more on issues like international development, climate and the environment, asylum seekers and refugees, promoting our values and taking a feminist approach to international relations.

A more ambitious approach to international development

An independent Scotland would have an opportunity to develop a genuinely different and progressive offer on overseas aid and development. The Scottish people have a long history of supporting those in need and it is important that this help continues and grows where possible. Addressing poverty and contributing to humanitarian crises globally are beneficial in and of themselves and they can also contribute to creating a more stable global environment. This is good for every country, including Scotland.

Over the last decade the UK has lost much of its international leadership on aid, with commentators noting a reduction in the quality and quantity of its spend on development through, for example, a “rushed merger,” and cuts to aid spend,[70] with a balancing of aid towards the national interest of the UK and away from the poorest countries.[71]

UK spending on international development has fallen drastically in recent years with huge impacts on the poorest.[72] In 1970, the UN set a target for donor countries to spend 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) on official development assistance (ODA). While the UK Government set this target in UK law in 2015, it reduced its commitment to 0.5% in 2021.[73] In 2022 the UK spent more than three times on housing refugees in Britain than on helping to alleviate poverty in Africa.[74]

The UK Government has said it will return to spending 0.7% on ODA ‘when fiscal circumstances allow,’[75] however this was not included in the UK Government’s 2023 Autumn Statement, despite the Office of Budget Responsibility suggesting the fiscal tests would be met in 2027/28 and 2028/29.[76]

This Scottish Government would commit to meet the UN target of 0.7% of GNI on ODA. An independent Scotland would be able to enshrine this commitment in law and provide development assistance and humanitarian aid in ways that are anchored in the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals and focused on poverty reduction.[77] At 2021 GNI figures, Scotland would be a mid-sized donor in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Donor Assistance Committee rankings (Table 3 below).

Table 3: A list of selected countries’ ODA in 2021 and how it equated as a percentage of GNI. Scotland’s 0.7% GNI is included for illustrative purposes.
Country ODA ($US million, 2021) [78] % GNI[79]
United Kingdom 15,712 0.5
Sweden 5,932 0.91
Norway 4,673 0.9
Denmark 2,921 0.71
Scotland [80] 1,646 0.7
Austria 1,467 0.31
Finland 1,441 0.47
Ireland 1,155 0.3
Luxembourg 539 0.99

Similar sized like-minded countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Finland or Ireland rank highly on indices of aid effectiveness and commitment to development.[81] Sweden, for example, was at the top of the Commitment to Development Index in 2023, which measures how countries’ policies improve lives in the developing world.[82] An independent Scotland could join these global leaders by taking a principled approach to deliver aid.

This Scottish Government would base spending decisions on the many drivers of poverty and the needs of the partner country. We could share expertise in areas such as health, innovation, renewable energy, research and human rights. And, with an emphasis on equitable partnerships, we would learn from partner countries in return, as the Scottish Government has sought to do through our development partnership with Malawi.

Building on the progressive approach this Scottish Government has taken under devolution, with independence this Government would be informed by a feminist approach ensuring Scotland’s ODA budget continued to have a strong focus on inclusion, which is crucial for global development. In 2018, the World Bank found that limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.[83] It is wrong that women, girls, minorities, or the LGBTI+ community should be marginalised in any context and in an independent Scotland, this government’s programmes would continue to seek to support and promote inclusion.

An independent Scotland would need to target its assistance carefully. The Paris Agenda for aid effectiveness emphasises the importance of countries taking a strategic and focused approach, rather than spreading development assistance thinly across multiple areas.[84] Taking a poverty- reduction lens, the majority of Scotland’s financing could go to sub-Saharan Africa, recognising that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest share of people living under the extreme poverty line, and extreme poverty is projected to become increasingly concentrated in that region.[85] There are also issues upon which Scotland has a responsibility to engage, due to historic colonial or slave trade links. The most recent accounts [86] the UK spent less than half of its finance on Africa in 2022, a proportion that has been reducing year on year.[87]

As a medium-sized donor, an independent Scotland would be a core and voluntary contributor to major multilateral organisations. These multilateral connections would be an important way for an independent Scotland to achieve impact, including through the UN, the World Bank and, of course, the EU. Working multilaterally would allow Scotland to pool resources with others and have an impact on poverty and redress inequalities at a global scale. Doing so could support those countries which bear the brunt of climate change caused by the development from which countries like Scotland have benefited. We would also be better placed to champion the perspectives of the Global South on climate justice and advocate for global vaccine equity or for debt relief.

Scotland could also use its seat at the table of multilateral organisations to advocate policies which will reduce poverty in developing countries. Indeed, Scotland is already doing this on ‘Loss and Damage’ in relation to climate change.[88] With independence, we could support positive terms of trade for developing countries, for example by identifying opportunities for trade to help meet development goals, such as through technology transfer.

In an independent Scotland, this government would establish a new ministerial portfolio dedicated to international development. This recognises that, whilst policy coherence remains of key importance, international development is a specific policy objective, reflecting Scotland’s values-led approach, requiring specific specialist expertise and investment. This approach would support the most effective spend, as well as coherent pro-development policy making for the Scottish Government more broadly.

Expanding Scotland’s international work on climate and environment

Tackling climate change and biodiversity loss would be a key part of Scotland’s international agenda as an independent nation – focusing on fair and just climate action towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions and a more resilient future.

Even with current powers, Scotland has developed a long-standing reputation for its commitment to the climate emergency[89] and its approach, always emphasising fairness and equality.[90] An independent Scotland would be able to do more and have greater influence, by working with partners within the EU and beyond.

Smaller countries already lead effectively on the international stage. Finland, for example, passed arguably the world’s most ambitious climate target into law, aiming to be the first carbon- neutral and the first fossil-free welfare society by 2035.[91] Independence would allow Scotland to lead on issues where we can have a real impact, focusing international effort and resources appropriately.

For example, Scotland could demonstrate how a fair transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions is possible. We could show how we build resilience to the impacts of climate change. This will require investment in skills training and education that helps to secure good, high- value jobs in green industries like manufacturing, renewables, and technology, as well as creating job security for those in industries at the forefront of the transition. As set out in the First Minister’s speech on industrial policy,[92] in an independent Scotland this Scottish Government would establish an Industrial Policy Council to promote innovation and maximise new economic opportunities.

Beyond our international climate finance and development spend, an independent Scotland could continue to support efforts to tackle climate change in ways that are inclusive and to champion a fair and just transition to net zero. We would support action at all levels of government and aim to be a bridge between national governments, as members of international and intergovernmental bodies, and those outside formal negotiating structures. We could use our voice and influence to secure recognition for governments at all levels in international climate change processes and to build coalitions that support and promote climate action by all actors.

This Scottish Government, across all its work, will also continue to support and amplify the voices and views of people on the front line of action. We will work to make sure women’s views and perspectives have the same weight as men’s and that everyone’s voices, including those of children and young people and marginalised groups, are heard and acted on appropriately.

Honouring our obligations in international treaties and agreements

In areas of devolved responsibility, Scotland already has an obligation to observe international agreements entered into by the UK.[93] But existing devolution arrangements mean that, all too often, Scotland has little or no input into positions taken by the UK Government in international negotiations, or decisions on whether to adopt an international treaty or agreement. For example, Scotland has no seat at the table to influence the Pandemic Accord negotiations,[94] or crucial climate change agreements – despite Scotland’s internationally recognised leadership in action on climate change.[95] The UK Government has shown a willingness to withdraw from or breach international treaties, which has been seen to be damaging the UK’s reputation and ability to influence internationally.[96]

Independence would give Scotland the opportunity to negotiate directly in our own interests. An independent Scotland could work with like-minded partners to advance an ambitious, progressive agenda and secure agreements in international forums aligned with our values and interests.

The Scottish Government believes that scrutiny and ratification of international treaties in an independent Scotland should be a transparent and democratic process and that the Scottish Parliament should be fully involved in this process, as happens in many other countries. Doing so would clearly signal Scotland’s commitment to meeting our international obligations in full.

Action would be needed to ensure that an independent Scotland, from day one, continued to honour the international treaties, conventions and agreements it would ‘inherit’ from the UK. These cover topics ranging from human rights, climate change and the environment to trade, taxation and defence. At the point of independence, therefore:

  • the Scottish Government would write formally to international organisations, such as the UN and the Council of Europe, to make clear Scotland’s intention to honour the multilateral commitments inherited from the UK – for example, obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement and the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols
  • new domestic legislation would be brought forward, where necessary, to give effect to treaties and obligations that require further provision to be made as a matter of Scots law
  • as part of this same exercise, the Scottish Government would reaffirm Scotland’s continuing intention to maintain alignment with EU regulations where possible and meaningful until it becomes a full member state

Protecting and progressing human rights

As part of the UK, Scotland is already party to more than 20 major international human rights instruments. For example, everyone in Scotland is currently entitled to the rights set out in seven core UN treaties and a further seven Council of Europe treaties.[97] The rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) are already part of domestic law and cases can be heard in the Scottish courts, with an option for individuals also to apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for judicial remedy.

These rights would be at risk if the UK Government were to withdraw from the ECHR, a move that would place the UK alongside Russia and Belarus as the only countries in Europe not signed up to this fundamental treaty.[98]

Far from withdrawing from human rights commitments and institutions, Scotland wants to go further. In 2021, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law so that those rights too can be directly justiciable in Scottish courts.[99] The Scottish Government intends to extend this world-leading approach by bringing forward further legislation to incorporate a further four such treaties into Scots law, within the limits of devolved competence.[100]

With independence, Scotland would have the opportunity to become a state party to treaties, conventions or agreements which the UK has not signed or ratified. That includes being able to identify areas where we could do things differently or go further than the UK, for the benefit of Scotland and our partners around the world.

For example, this Scottish Government would seek to:

  • join the majority of EU member states in becoming a full state party to the Revised European Social Charter. The UK signed the Revised Charter in 1997 but has never ratified it
  • become a party to the UN Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which the UK has declined to sign. The Convention prohibits practices such as the state-sponsored abduction of individuals, including by means of ‘extraordinary rendition’– state-sponsored ‘forcible abduction in another jurisdiction and transfer to a third state.’ The Scottish Government has repeatedly raised concerns about the use of Scottish airports by aircraft alleged to be involved in rendition flights. Becoming a party to the Convention would further underline that such practices will not be tolerated in Scotland

Similarly, an independent Scotland could decide whether to carry forward or remove any of the UK’s declarations and reservations which qualify the extent to which the provisions of some treaties currently apply to it. This Scottish Government disagrees, for example, with the UK Government’s reservation which exempts migrant women from the protections afforded by the Istanbul Convention.[101]

As we set out in ‘Building a New Scotland: Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland,’ independence “would help Scotland to secure rights and further embed equality by putting them at the heart of its constitution.”[102] This Scottish Government proposes[103] that the interim constitution of an independent Scotland:

would embed human rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as well as the core international human rights treaties relating to economic, social and cultural rights and the rights of children, women, minority ethnic communities, disabled people and refugees, and the right to a healthy environment. The interim constitution would include a right to access a system of healthcare free at the point of need, and protect workers’ rights, including the right to strike. It would also embed equality safeguards and include a duty to advance equality of opportunity for all.

A feminist approach

Gender equality is at the heart of the Scottish Government’s vision for a fairer world and Scotland has a proud record of engaging internationally within the current constitutional arrangement. That is why the Scottish Government committed to developing a feminist approach to international relations,[104] applying a feminist lens to all levers currently available to Scottish Government policy with an international dimension.

There are now over 16 nations, spread across each of the five UN regions, advocating for a feminist foreign policy.[105] An independent Scotland would leverage the full powers of an independent state to deliver a feminist approach to international relations to protect, promote and fulfil human rights around the world, collaborating within the multilateral system, regional and bilateral contexts to tackle the root causes of inequality that drive insecurity.

An independent Scotland could also build on our Women in Conflict 1325 Fellowship programme,[106] by sharing expertise and providing support and training in mediation, conflict resolution, reconciliation and constitution building to those from conflict-affected regions.

A fairer and more streamlined approach to asylum seekers and refugees

Being a good global citizen also means respecting international commitments and welcoming people from all over the world. An independent Scotland would be an active participant in global cooperation to respond to migration and displacement issues.

Asylum is granted to people who have been forced to flee persecution in their country of origin and who need international protection. Independence would allow Scotland to reject the ‘hostile environment’ approach taken by a succession of UK governments, including the current government, and especially the approach to forced removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda. The UK approach has undermined international norms and attracted significant criticism.[107]

Despite this, Scotland has provided a warm welcome and a new home for refugees and people seeking asylum for many years and continues to do so. During this time, expertise has been built up in local government, the third sector and community-based organisations, particularly in Glasgow, supporting people to settle in Scotland and rebuild their lives.

This Scottish Government wants to make the refugee and asylum system fairer and more streamlined and to treat people with dignity and respect. This new system would only be available with independence. Key proposals that we set out in ‘Building a New Scotland: migration to Scotland after independence’[108] include:

  • responsibility for overseeing the asylum process in an independent Scotland would be given to a new Scottish Asylum and Refugee Resettlement Agency
  • the new approach would be underpinned by an emphasis on fair, socially responsible and thorough decision-making, with clear adherence to human rights and equality principles and to the rule of law
  • all asylum processing would take place in Scotland, with no offshoring to other countries
  • if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, that would come with the status of settlement in Scotland – what the UK Government calls ‘indefinite leave to remain’. This would support longer term integration and reduce the need to go through additional administrative processes to stay in Scotland on a permanent basis
  • once people are granted asylum, the transition process would be as straightforward as possible, using the principles of the ‘New Scots’ refugee integration strategy. As people would already have access to social security benefits, they would not face the risk of destitution which is a feature of the UK Government’s asylum support system when financial support ends
  • support for refugees and people seeking asylum could be streamlined, including housing and employment rights and support. Rather than operating multiple programmes with different rights and entitlements as the UK Government does, this Scottish Government would seek to deliver support on an equal basis. This would make our systems fairer and more straightforward for those who have to use them, as well as providing better value for money by not having to run parallel support systems.

Inevitably, some people would not meet the criteria for asylum status, but in an independent Scotland, anyone in that position would be treated with dignity, fairness and respect. Those affected would get help to consider their options and ensure that they would not face destitution or homelessness.

Detention by default, along with the Home Office’s practice of dawn raids, would not form part of the current Scottish Government’s approach to asylum. Where detention is necessary, it would be informed by risk assessment and be for a limited period prior to removal.[109]

The asylum system would be overseen by the courts, with an appeals process and essential safeguards to protect the human rights of people seeking asylum. The new powers Scotland will gain at independence around equality, including race equality, would be important in supporting Scotland’s ambition to be a progressive, welcoming and inclusive state.

A new, fairer approach to refugee resettlement

Scotland has played a significant role in the UK’s refugee resettlement and relocation programmes, particularly those relating to Syria and Afghanistan. An independent Scotland would continue to support refugee resettlement. Following independence, the Scottish Asylum and Refugee Resettlement Agency would work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to identify refugees with the most pressing needs and no durable solution in their current location who could come to Scotland. The refugee resettlement programme in an independent Scotland would be global and sufficiently flexible to enable a quick response to emerging crises and to avoid the need for separate programmes for each crisis.

As outlined in the sixth publication in the ‘Building a New Scotland’ series,[110] with independence, people arriving in Scotland under refugee resettlement programmes would be granted refugee status and indefinite leave to remain on arrival. This would enable them to get on with their lives, without the need to go through unnecessary and complex administrative processes later on. We recognise that many people who come to Scotland as refugees will wish to return to their home countries when conditions allow, but in the meantime the Scottish Government would work with local authorities, public services, the third sector and communities to welcome them and support their long-term integration.

The challenges presented by displacement and migration mean that it is vital that countries work together to support people who have had to flee from their home country. As a member of the European Union, an independent Scotland would fully participate in EU refugee resettlement and relocation initiatives, taking our place in the EU’s decision-making process as a member in our own right, reflecting Scotland’s values and goals.

Independence would provide an opportunity to take innovative and imaginative approaches to assisting displaced people using the migration system. To supplement our refugee resettlement programme, with independence we could build flexibility into the Scottish migration system, allowing us to provide opportunities for refugees and displaced people to come to Scotland under new safe and legal routes.



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