Published on Scottish Left Review /page 18/28, by Carole Ewart, Issue 56 online, January-February 2010.
UN Human Rights Treaties can be used to establish public expenditure priorities, argues Carole Ewart: Can decisions rooted in a human rights framework improve our everyday lives or is progressive change best delivered by democratically elected politicians? It should not be a matter of ‘either, or’ as our politicians have seven, ratified United Nations (UN) Treaties to draw on when deciding on policy, on services and on funding. However there is little explicit evidence that these basic human rights standards and our international obligations to deliver them do inform key decisions on everyday issues in our communities especially at a time of public sector cuts. There is even less evidence that politicians and public sector staff are aware of the extent of their existing obligations and the range of the public’s individual rights.
Just how many people are aware that the UK Government has undertaken to progressively realise, to the maximum extent of its available resources economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights? At a time of public sector cuts, budgets in the UK should be properly analysed and understood and spend determined on delivering specific rights such as ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work’ (Art 7) the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance (Art 9) the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions (Art 11 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights). Publicity to date has given the public a clear impression that human rights are confined to civil and political rights such as the voting rights of prisoners and the right to protest rather than human rights on issues which equally impact on and therefore belong to, all of us.
The seven UN Treaties are in addition to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which has been incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Added protection exists for people in Scotland due to sections 29 and 57 of the Scotland Act 1998 which requires MSPs and government Ministers, apart from certain acts of the Lord Advocate, to comply with the ECHR. So if a UK Conservative Government is elected in 2010 and delivers its commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act, then Scotland will be better off as our Government still retains specific ECHR obligations which can be enforced in Scottish courts.
The ECHR is regarded as a more powerful human rights instrument as it can be enforced in domestic courts whereas the seven ratified UN treaties are a matter of international law. Practically the ECHR can make a difference as, for example, section 6 of the Human Rights Act requires the public sector to comply and that means people in care homes and in hospitals should not be subjected to degrading treatment.
However the ECHR has its critics who argue that it is a narrow document focusing on civil and political rights and that its benefits are enjoyed by only a few. However it is a document that needs to be more proactively understood by elected politicians and by the public sector and used by the voluntary and charitable sectors to prevent human rights abuses. It is a ‘living treaty’ and has been interpreted to apply to a range of everyday issues such as in Spain where Mrs Lopez Ostra argued that the smell from a local factory interfered with her right to enjoy ‘family life and her home’. The European Court of Human Rights agreed and ruled that the public authorities had failed to properly discharge their regulatory functions in respect of the private factory … //
… Charities such as Human Rights Scotland closed due to lack of funds and interest in 2007 despite having published materials and delivering human rights training. Maybe human rights have arrived as the principles and standards resonate with the needs and interests of the general public. We will wait and see! (full text /page 18).