International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: position statement

This position statement sets out the action we've taken in devolved areas to implement the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Ministerial Foreword

Much has happened since the Scottish Government last reported on Scotland's implementation of the rights set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 2014, in concurrence with the UK's sixth State party review.[1]

Scotland has endured over a decade of UK Government austerity measures, been forced to leave the European Union (EU) against its will, declared a climate emergency and experienced a global pandemic. We are now facing a cost of living crisis being made worse by experiencing the most severe economic upheaval in a generation due to the UK Government's actions. Throughout all of this change and turmoil Scotland has remained committed to making substantial and meaningful progress to ensure that economic, social and cultural human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled for everyone in Scotland.

The Scottish Government continues to focus on making human rights real for individuals and communities. Giving full and proper effect to internationally recognised economic, social and cultural rights is central to the Scottish Government's purpose and finds formal expression in our National Performance Framework (NPF) and in the specific human rights National Outcome which it contains. This outcome makes clear that Scotland's public authorities must "respect, protect and fulfil human rights" and that everyone in Scotland should be able to "live free from discrimination".

In line with that overarching ambition we are striving to embed human rights at the centre of everything we do. We have, for example, established the first social security system in the UK based on the statutory principle that social security is a human right, both in itself and because it is essential to the realisation of other human rights. Our consistent aim has been to create a social security system that is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

We have also set out in statute our ambition to significantly reduce child poverty, underpinned by ambitious interim and longer-term targets which we aim to achieve in 2023 and 2030 respectively. The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 sets out a robust framework for action, monitoring and scrutiny at both a national and local level. Across 2018-22 the Scottish Government is estimated to have invested nearly £8.5 billion to support low income households, of which almost £3.3 billion benefitted children.

We are taking action to incorporate the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law within the limits imposed by the current constitutional settlement. We intend to go further, by also incorporating economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, as far as possible within devolved competence.

Following the recommendations of the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership we have committed to establishing a new legislative framework for human rights in Scotland and to introducing a Human Rights Bill during this parliamentary session.

In addition to the economic, social and cultural rights in ICESCR, the proposed Human Rights Bill would incorporate into Scots law the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as far as possible within our devolved competence.

We know that a safe, clean and healthy environment is fundamental to human dignity and fulfilment of other human rights. That is why we have committed to the inclusion of the right to a healthy environment within the Human Rights Bill. The Bill will also include provision to ensure equal access to everyone to the substantive rights contained in the Bill, including older people and LGBTI people.

Although Scotland has made significant progress in many areas since 2014, it is also true that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequality, poverty and disadvantage. There is clear evidence that harm has been felt unevenly, including by people and communities who were already experiencing poorer outcomes. Such inequality will now be felt even more keenly as a result of soaring energy bills, predicted inflation in 2022/23 of [11]% and the cost crisis which is only likely to grow in scope and scale through the coming winter.

COVID-19 and the cost of living crisis are not the only threats to realising rights in Scotland, as we face other very real threats to many of the most fundamental protections we take for granted. Since 2016, the UK has left the European Union and with it the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Decisions made by the UK Government have already removed important legal protections and safeguards in areas including civil liberties, employment law, consumer protection and gender and racial discrimination. Emerging UK proposals for the en masse repeal of retained EU legislation will deprive individuals and communities throughout the UK of further essential protections. Plans to repeal and replace the Human Rights Act have faced overwhelming opposition, but UK Government antipathy to the safeguards provided by the Act remains very real. The Scottish Government continues to view the Human Rights Act as one of the most important and successful pieces of legislation ever passed by the UK Parliament. The Act has a 20-year track record of delivering fairness and justice, including for some of the most vulnerable people in UK society, and it enjoys our explicit and unequivocal support.

It is therefore essential to acknowledge that Scotland has a human rights journey to complete, which at times will prove challenging and difficult, and hampered by the actions of the UK Government. This position statement sets out some of the many steps that we are taking to move forward in a fair and just way.

We must also be bold and resolute in confronting external threats to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Russia's unprovoked and illegal war of aggression against Ukraine has highlighted the fragility of the post-1945 international order. Civil and political rights are under direct threat from dangerous dictatorial regimes around the world, and economic, social and cultural rights are also under increasing threat. Not only have the human rights of the people of Ukraine been violated, the consequences of Russia's criminal acts pose an unprecedented threat to global food security and to the stability of Europe's energy supplies. Hunger and cold will be the inevitable result, and as always it will be the most vulnerable who are worst affected.

One of the great frustrations of Scotland's current constitutional status is that progressive values and human rights ambition continue to be obstructed by the actions of regressive and inhumane UK Government policies. Nevertheless, both my ministerial colleagues and I are very clear that we will do all we can to implement and uphold internationally-recognised human rights in Scotland and to meet our duties and obligations in full.

This report records the progress which both the Scottish Government and Scotland as a nation have already achieved in putting human rights firmly at the heart of public policy and public administration in Scotland.

It serves also to signpost the actions which we, collectively, have yet to take. That challenge is one which this Government intends to meet in full. The issues addressed in our report are crucial to ensuring that everyone in Scottish society, including those who are vulnerable and at risk, are able to fully enjoy the human rights which belong to every one of us.

I look forward to the forthcoming examination of the formal UK State party report by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and to receiving – and acting upon – the Committee's subsequent recommendations.

Christina McKelvie MSP, Minister for Equalities and Older People



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