Stirling’s leading role in human rights reform

Scotland is responsible for observing and implementing international human rights obligations in devolved areas such as health, social security, education, housing and social care. Ensuring human rights protection in this area is part of the UK’s international obligations. At a practical level, it means that human rights are embedded across the work of government to ensure law and policy supports the dignity of everyone in Scotland. There is a vibrant and dynamic conversation in Scotland about human rights reform. Civil and political momentum has committed Scotland to a path where civil, political, economic, social, cultural, environmental rights are better protected. 

Research undertaken by Dr Katie Boyle of the University of Stirling has been informing Scotland’s approach to the legal incorporation of the rights into domestic law. Ultimately, this means giving people the opportunity to enjoy their rights and to have routes to effective remedies available if or when their rights are not adequately protected.

Hands reaching upwards

Scotland’s path to incorporation of international human rights law

In 2015 the First Minister committed to looking at the different ways to make human rights more real on the ground for everyday life. Human rights form part of the state’s international obligations under several international treaties and as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals relating to food, water, health, education, eradication of poverty, climate action and peace and justice. This commitment required exploring the different means of incorporating international human rights into our domestic framework.

In both 2015 and 2018 Dr Katie Boyle published research with the Scottish Human Rights Commission on ‘Models Incorporation and Justiciability for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’. This research addressed the questions around how to embed international human rights into domestic law – the research showed that human rights accountability should be embedded across the work of parliament, the government and the judiciary. Importantly, if a violation (a breach of a right) occurs, then the research recommends that an effective remedy must be made available.

“THIS REPORT IS A WELCOME CONTRIBUTION TO A MUCH BIGGER DEBATE ABOUT HOW WE WORK TOGETHER AS A NATION IN ORDER TO MAKE RIGHTS REAL FOR EVERY MEMBER OF SOCIETY.”

Christine McKelvie, Equalities Minister and then Convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, Scottish Parliament

The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership

Following the research undertaken with the Scottish Human Rights Commission on incorporation of human rights into domestic law Dr Boyle was appointed to advise the First Minister on the different ways Scotland can incorporate international human rights into domestic law.

The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership

The First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, including Dr Katie Boyle (far right)

In 2018 the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership was set up by Scotland’s First Minister to make recommendations on how Scotland can continue to lead by example in the field of human rights. This included Boyle’s research on incorporation of economic, social and cultural rights. The Group, chaired by Professor Alan Miller, comprised of experts from the Universities of Stirling, Strathclyde, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Essex, the Faculty of Advocates and the Scottish Human Rights Commission and was supported by a large civil society reference group. Operating independently from the Scottish Government, the Group published a report “Recommendations for a new human rights framework to improve people’s lives” on 10 December 2018.

"The Scottish Government has been resolute in standing up for human rights. I want this group to provide leadership and to challenge all of our public institutions – including the Scottish Government – to do even more."

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister

The National Task Force on Human Rights Leadership

The National Task Force on Human Rights Leadership was established in 2019 to implement the recommendations of the First Minister’s Advisory Group. The National Task Force is co-chaired by the Social Security and Older People Cabinet Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville and Professor Alan Miller, Professor of Practice in Human Rights Law, University of Strathclyde and Special Envoy of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. The National Task Force’s remit includes making recommendations on a new statutory framework that incorporates economic, social, cultural and environmental rights into domestic law. Dr Boyle of Stirling University advises the National Task Force as a member of the Academic Advisory Panel. A team working on Access to Justice at the University of Stirling has contributed to key briefings on how to ensure access to justice for violations of human rights, including how to access an effective remedy.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill

In 2018 Dr Boyle was appointed to advise the Children’s and Young Person’s Commissioner on incorporation of a UN treaty that seeks to better protect the rights of children in Scotland. In 2019 she was separately appointed to advise the Scottish Government as part of the UNCRC Working Group. In 2020 the Scottish Government introduced a Bill that incorporates the convention into domestic law meaning children will more easily be able to enjoy their human rights, and hold government to account if their rights are not respected. The Bill relies on research conducted as part of the University of Stirling Access to Justice for Social Rights Project. The research in this project shows that rights holders must have access to an effective remedy when their rights are violated. Based on Stirling research the Bill was amended to ensure that children have the right to request an effective remedy and to explain what would be the most effective remedy to them.

Next steps

The National Task Force on Human Rights Leadership will produce a report on Scotland’s Next Steps for human rights reform. Once this report is finalised the Scottish Government will be tasked with implementing recommendations, including on how to ensure access to justice for violations of economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. Stirling’s Access to Justice for Social Rights project will continue to inform the debate on incorporation of international human rights and access to effective remedies for violations. Scotland has an opportunity to set an example of international best practice in implementing the recommendations of the National Task Force and through the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. This will enable people living in Scotland, including children, to more easily access their rights to housing, health, education, social security and environmental justice in line with the state’s international obligations and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

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