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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Unlocking the power of the UN human rights system

This opinion piece is almost 10 years old

Deirdre Flanigan explains how voluntary organisations can use the United Nations human rights system to improve lives for the people they support

Deirdre Flanigan
Deirdre Flanigan

The United Nations human rights system has the potential to unlock a stronger better society for everyone in Scotland. Many of us in the third sector already engage with it effectively in our advocacy, lobbying and campaigning work, but others could use it far more to advance the cause of their clients or service users

The Scottish Human Rights Commission often works with organisations to help them promote and protect human rights. We are a national human rights institution (NHRI) and it’s our job to play a bridging role between Scotland and the UN human rights system. I’m working on a training and resource pack for the third sector right now to help organisations engage with the UN human rights system. There is a wealth of recommendations, guidance and good practice that the UN human rights system can offer to those of us looking to create a better country, where everyone can live with dignity.

In much the same way that we engage with consultations in the Scottish Parliament the commission regularly engages with the UN human rights system. This puts independent pressure on governments around the world and provides a direction for the upward pressure from those of us working in social justice.

It is clear that the untapped potential of the UN human rights system needs to be unlocked

Universal Periodic Review in the UN Human Rights Council is a unique, and fascinating mechanism in which countries peer review one another’s human rights records every four years. It is a process which sees countries reviewing each other on the basis of information often garnered from civil society and NHRIs. It’s not quite the football World Cup but countries are just as keen to avoid international embarrassment.

The reviews of the committee bodies under the UN conventions are also extremely useful. These are groups of independent experts who review progress made by countries against the obligations they sign up to when they ratify UN conventions. Helpfully these committees also make recommendations, known as general comments to help us interpret the conventions. So, for example, the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides for the right to work. The ICESCR committee’s general comment 18 in 2005 spelled out precisely what is required for a country to meet that standard, including work that respects the rights people to work safely, to be paid and to earn a living for themselves and their family.

This particular example has major implications for organisations campaigning on issues like zero-hour contracts and the living wage. It is clear that the untapped potential of the UN human rights system needs to be unlocked. If we all begin to use the various mechanisms effectively and efficiently the momentum for change created could be significant. Put bluntly – our society simply won’t know what’s hit it.

I would love to hear from any organisations or networks who would be interested in finding out more, or working together with the commission on this side of our work.

Deirdre Flanigan is the communications and outreach co-ordinator at the Scottish Human Rights Commission Email her at [email protected]