Opinion: Human rights defence not so easy elsewhere

Opinion: Human rights defence not so easy elsewhere

Shelagh McCall QC

Each time I get to my feet in court, no matter the type of case, the last thing on my mind is the possibility I might be in danger, other than perhaps from a few withering comments from the bench of course!

In Scotland, lawyers are fortunate that, when we take up the challenge of defending human rights, we do so in a mature legal system that respects the rule of law. We will not lose our jobs for speaking up for the vulnerable. We will not be imprisoned for challenging the state. We will not be sanctioned for seeking to hold the powerful to account through the courts. For many around the world, standing up for human rights is not so easy.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The Declaration was a significant moment in human rights history because, for the first time, it gave international recognition to the right of individuals, acting on their own or in association with others, to be free to protect and promote human rights.

Human rights defenders come in all shapes and sizes. They may be lawyers, journalists, community leaders, writers and artists, NGO workers. In many countries, human rights defenders are victims of violence, intimidation, harassment, smear campaigns and surveillance. Latest global figures suggest more than 300 human rights defenders are murdered each year, often with impunity.

At the beginning of June, as a result of the increased pressure faced globally by human rights defenders and civil society, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders joined with the Chairs of UN Treaty Bodies to call on States to boost protection for human rights defenders.

All of this matters to us here in Scotland. The UN Declaration emphasises not only the right to promote and protect human rights, but also the responsibility to do so. It is a responsibility on all of us, working collectively.

So what are we doing to play our part?

The Faculty of Advocates has a long history of supporting international human rights and the rule of law, and now we continue that tradition by launching the Scottish Bar International Human Rights Award.

We want to honour those human rights defenders who achieve remarkable outcomes in the most challenging of circumstances. They often act on behalf of local communities and victims of mass human rights violations in areas of armed conflict, social unrest, persecution of minorities or environmental conflicts. Their activities are apolitical and peaceful, their work vital to upholding the rule of law.

The award will be presented every two years. The winner will be invited to Scotland to exchange experience and expertise with members of the Bar and others who work to uphold human rights and the rule of law. During their visit, they will be offered the opportunity to receive advocacy training appropriate to their work. We will help them make contacts for future support and to raise the profile of the situation in their country.

International support can help keep human rights defenders safe. In two weeks in 2016, seven human rights workers were killed in Colombia. Jani Silva, a community activist campaigning for human rights and environmental protection, was routinely threatened with death. When those threatening her realised her name was known to international organisations, the threats ceased.

This year in Scotland we are celebrating our own 20th anniversary – that of the passing of the Scotland Act and the Human Rights Act. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights was an important step in our human rights history. But the work is not done, at home or abroad. The lived experience of people in Scotland at times still falls short of the full realisation of their rights as human beings, particularly in the field of economic, social and cultural rights. We continue to need our own domestic human rights defenders and we should not underestimate the task of effecting change. But we must acknowledge that the environment in which we seek to do so is comparatively benign.

The Scottish Bar International Human Rights Award is a public acknowledgement of our respect for those working in far more difficult contexts and of the bonds of solidarity that exist between human rights defenders globally.

The Faculty of Advocates, through this award, is privileged to be able to contribute to Scotland’s continuing journey to respect, protect and fulfil all international human rights of everyone, everywhere.

Shelagh McCall, QC, is convenor of the Faculty of Advocates’ Human Rights and Rule of Law Committee. This article first appeared in The Scotsman.

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