Why should I care about human rights? What difference does it make to me in Scotland? We’ve always had human rights, right?
These are questions which no one asks, or at least, no one has ever asked me. Yet when you ask people on the street about whether they support human rights, they will likely say, “Yeah, of course!”. To say anything else is socially unacceptable. Universal human rights are the new norm in Scotland. I say new, because it was only in 1998 that the UK government passed the Human Rights Act. To put that in context, I am a year older than the Act which guarantees me the right to freedom of speech, the freedom to practice my faith, the right to a fair trial, protection of property, protection from slavery, and that most basic of human rights – the right to live. Free education was only made compulsory across the UK with the 1870 and 1872 Education Acts, and even then, only for five- to thirteen-year-olds. The right for women and men to vote, regardless of gender, class, or property, was only enshrined in UK law with the 1928 Representation of the People Act. Corporal punishment was still legal in schools as recently as 1986, while homosexuality was still a crime until 1967, and it was not until 2014 that gay and lesbian couples could be legally married in Scotland.
Professor Alan Turing, the man credited with cracking the Nazi Enigma Code in WW2, was discovered to be in a homosexual relationship after his house was broken into in 1952. He was subsequently charged with ‘Gross Indecency’ (sexual activity between men) and forced to undergo hormonal treatment. He died in 1954 of Cyanide poisoning, though there is debate as to whether it was suicide or not. This photo is in the public domain.
But surely, the UK’s human rights abuses are the stuff of history? Yes, and they still continue to this day. Take the example of poverty: In Scotland, 1 in 5 children grow up in poverty, while in the UK, there are 13 million individuals living in poverty. According to the Scottish Government, “Life expectancy is still lower by 12.5 years for males in the 10% most deprived areas compared with males born in the 10% least deprived areas, for males born around 2012.” In Scotland, people are playing a postcode lottery with their lives. It is proven that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to perform worse in school compared to their better off peers, are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses and are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than their more affluent peers. It is a situation replicated across the UK and with further welfare ‘reforms’, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that there will be a 50% rise in the number of children living in child poverty across the UK. How can the UK government justify this? We are one of the richest nations in the world and yet the rights of children continue to be abused.
Or what about the right to not “be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment?” Surely we still do not torture people? What are we, the Islamic State? Yet, even the UK has sunk to the level of terrorists, with members of our armed forces accused of torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners, as well as killing innocent civilians. These are actions that stand at odds with our support for universal human rights.
What about other countries? Should we just let them abuse their citizens? Shall we be silent and leave them be? Our government’s hands may be tied by principles of sovereignty or a desire for self-interest. Our hands are free, and we are members of the global community of humanity. When orphans drag themselves across Europe to Calais, should we see them as less deserving than a child born in Scotland? When writers and bloggers are imprisoned, attacked, or executed for daring to criticise the state’s role in atrocities, shall we be silent and ignore them because they are in Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia? When demagogues rise, and threaten to “bomb the ****” out of regions with innocent civilians ruled by terrorists, shall we nod silently and get on with our lives? After two world wars, the world said “Never again.” Yet the final world war continues, the war against oppression, slavery, and persecution. The war where innocents die and children can be abused. The war that tyrants, dictators, and demagogues all over the world wage on universal human rights.
We, the people, have a duty to each other. We can take part in raising awareness or fundraising for charities such as Save the Children or Oxfam. We, the people, can put pressure on governments with petitions and letter writing campaigns such as those organised by Amnesty International. We can tackle human rights abuses in our country by lobbying our elected representatives, who can bring about substantial change at all levels of government. We, the people, have our rights in our hands and we should exercise these rights to spread human rights around the globe.
Many are hugely privileged in Scotland but more work needs to be done. One child in poverty is one child too many. One person discriminated against is one person too many. Universal Human Rights are accepted by all UN member states; it is our duty as citizens of our respective nations to ensure that our rights are protected.
If you are interested in getting actively involved in human rights, please look into Amnesty International, Save the Children, and Liberty. For charities which specialise in helping people in the UK living in poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Child Poverty Action Group provide excellent resources and information. Finally, see what your rights are as enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.