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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Volunteers as human rights defenders? 

This opinion piece is 9 months old

Sarah Latto on Volunteer Scotland's response to the Human Rights Bill

Last week Volunteer Scotland responded to the consultation on the Human Rights Bill. It is a key priority for the Scottish Government to embed human rights into Scot’s law and build a ‘human rights culture’ in Scotland. 

In drafting our response to the consultation, we asked two questions: 
1. What is the contribution of volunteers in upholding human rights? 
2. Should participation in volunteering be protected by rights legislation?

Our response was informed largely by feedback from the Policy Champions Network which met last month to discuss the contribution of volunteering to the human rights agenda. It was clear from this discussion that the success of any human rights legislation, and indeed the development of a human rights culture, is reliant on the efforts of volunteers. One attendee even referred to volunteers as "human rights defenders". 

Volunteers support the rights of individuals in a range of roles, some more obvious than others. Citizens Advice Bureaux volunteers provide advice to thousands of people each year, empowering them to protect their own rights. Dignity is a central tenet of the Human Rights Bill, and health and care organisations like The Food Train and Kirrie Connections uphold the rights and dignity of people with health conditions so that they can stay in their homes and communities for longer. 

However, volunteers also uphold the rights of Scotland’s people in a range of other ways. The right to participate in cultural life is reliant on the many thousands of volunteers who support arts, culture and heritage activities. The proposed right to participate in decision-making is often dependent on volunteers in representative roles like community councils which support local participation in place plans. 

One form of volunteering that is often overlooked but has a key role in the provision of rights advocacy is found in trade unions. According to UNISON

"Our volunteer workplace reps play a vital day-to-day role in helping UNISON members… they are advisers and sounding boards, talking to members about workplace problems and – if they feel confident – giving advice on how to deal with these."

In addition, volunteers have an important role in the proposed right to a healthy environment, both in responding to the effects of climate change and in helping to bringing about change. In my most recent blog, I explored the contribution of volunteers in transformational roles such as campaigning, awareness-raising and citizen science to the development of a circular economy. 

So it’s clear volunteers have a key role defending and protecting human rights in Scotland. But what about volunteering itself? Should it be protected in human rights legislation? 

One of the existing international human rights that is proposed for inclusion in this legislation is the right to participate in cultural life, and there is clear evidence that volunteering is a vital part of cultural life in Scotland. This was demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, when 64% of Scotland’s adult population volunteered either formally or informally during 2020. We also saw the cultural significance of volunteering during the spell of bad weather last weekend when volunteers stepped up to help those affected by flooding.  

Similarly, participation in volunteering helps to uphold the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The health and wellbeing benefits of volunteering were evidenced in our 2018 research, which showed that volunteering can significantly improve mental and physical health while also reducing social isolation. As an example of this, a recent evaluation of the Scottish Government’s Refugee Integration Strategy found that the majority of refugees and asylum seekers interviewed had been involved in volunteering, and that this "helped their mental health and reduced the isolating effects of not being able to have paid employment." 

While it is clear that volunteering has a significant positive role to play in developing a human rights culture in Scotland, we did have a few concerns about the potential implications of this legislation for volunteers. We were clear in our response that many volunteers would require significant training and guidance to understand this legislation, thus requiring dedicated resource. We also expressed concern that volunteers and volunteer-led organisations involved in upholding rights could be held liable for any legislative duties that emerge. 

So, volunteers already have a key role in upholding human rights in Scotland, and volunteering is so important that it should be protected in human rights legislation. However, it is vital that efforts are made to ensure that this legislation does not present additional barriers or pressures for volunteers. With all of this in mind we are cautiously optimistic about the future role of volunteers in developing a human rights culture but will be keeping a close eye on how the legislation develops. 

Sarah Latto is policy officer at Volunteer Scotland