Meeting date: Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 26 September 2018
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Common Agricultural Policy, Social Security, Human Rights Defenders (Support and Protection), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, European Atomic Energy Community (Impacts of Leaving)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Common Agricultural Policy
- Social Security
- Human Rights Defenders (Support and Protection)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- European Atomic Energy Community (Impacts of Leaving)
Human Rights Defenders (Support and Protection)
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14075, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on supporting and protecting human rights defenders.15:43
It is a great pleasure to open the debate in my new role as the minister with responsibility for human rights. The debate is important for our Parliament and we should all be proud of it. I am delighted that former colleagues from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee will participate in the debate and I look forward to working with the committee. I am sure that its members will be just as gentle with me as we were with the previous minister.
One of the committee’s great strengths is that its members share a common commitment to all the fundamental principles of democracy, human rights, equality and the rule of law. That is also an attribute of the Parliament as a whole, which we should be proud of. That is important, because we will in the debate recognise the work of those who promote and uphold human rights, often in very different environments from those in which we operate—environments in which personal risk is an everyday reality and the consequences of speaking out can literally be life threatening.
In opening the 39th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council a few weeks ago, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, described human rights as
“a powerful medicine, which heals wounds and develops resilience.”
That striking metaphor is made all the more powerful by the personal experience that informs it. Having survived the Pinochet dictatorship, Ms Bachelet went on to become Chile’s minister for health and then its first woman President.
She understands, from that first-hand experience, the power of human rights as a source of strength and healing. However, as members around the chamber are well aware, that progressive, positive view of human rights is not universally shared. In far too many countries around the world, state authorities are more likely to see human rights and those who work to defend them as the problem rather than the cure. The voice of those who speak up for dignity, equality and human rights is not heard in some places as a call to build a better future for us all; instead, such voices are feared for the challenge that they present to vested interests and corrupt systems.
Even in more progressive countries, those who speak truth unto power can sometimes find that the messenger is blamed for the message. Criticism—even constructive criticism—can be uncomfortable and unwelcome. As politicians, we all know that.
I welcome the minister to her post, and I think that she will be a human rights defender in the Government. As such, what learning will she take from the missteps by the Scottish Government over the memorandum of understanding that was signed with Chinese companies, for which it failed to do due diligence, and what steps will she take to ensure that that does not happen again?
I might have an offline conversation with Alex Cole-Hamilton on that matter, because today I want to focus on human rights defenders and the fact that we have now committed to the Scottish human rights defender fellowship. The issue that he raises could change the tone of today’s debate slightly, so I hope that we can have a proper conversation about it another time.
Verbal attacks may well lay the foundation for physical attacks. State reluctance to hear the truth readily becomes overt state action to close down debate, and far from confronting the reality of abuse, the powerful seek to silence those who draw attention to the failings of state institutions. To understand the scale of the problem, it is enough to let the figures speak for themselves.
In 2017, Front Line Defenders, one of the leading international non-governmental organisations working to support human rights defenders globally, reported that 312 human rights defenders had been killed in 27 countries. Since 2015, there have been 400 killings and 1,200 documented attacks on human rights defenders working specifically on business abuses of human rights. Those figures are startling. Thousands more activists have been detained on fabricated charges, subjected to lengthy, expensive and unfair legal processes, or sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
Some cases are high profile and attract international attention. Myanmar’s recent jailing of two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, for reporting human rights abuses against the Rohingya people is a case in point. Hundreds of others pursue their work in much lonelier and sometimes even more perilous circumstances, and they all deserve our support, in this Parliament and across Scottish society. We should stand in international solidarity with human rights defenders around the world.
This year we mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 20 years of the UN declaration on human rights defenders. Both are explicitly inclusive in their approach. The universal declaration reminds us that all people are born free and equal in dignity and in rights, and that human rights are for all people, everywhere, all of the time. Anyone who acts to promote or protect human rights is a human rights defender.
That is why I am delighted that the new Scottish human rights defender fellowship has been established. The fellowship was born out of a desire to express solidarity with everyone who steps up to that universal responsibility to defend human rights. It reflects a shared commitment, not just on the part of this Government, but across civil society and Scotland’s universities, to take action to provide practical support for individual human rights defenders.
The purpose of the fellowship is to enable human rights defenders to come to Scotland for a three-month sabbatical, between September and December. Once here, they will have freedom to continue their work, develop their skills and extend their networks in a place of safety—some might say “sanctuary”. The University of Dundee is hosting the fellowship, and I would like to thank Kurt Mills, professor of international relations and human rights at Dundee, and Jaclyn Scott, who have both worked tirelessly to make the fellowship a reality.
I also want to thank Amnesty International for the particular contribution that it has made as a partner, including through in-country support to the fellows and legal advice to them when they apply for United Kingdom visas.
I am grateful to the minister for mentioning the work of Amnesty International. She will know that today’s briefing from Amnesty encourages her to ensure that the human rights agenda is embedded in the Scottish Government’s international development work, and she will also know that many of the countries that we work with have poor records on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. What sort of approach will she take to that when she meets the leaders of countries such as Malawi?
I thank Kezia Dugdale for that important intervention. I have a round-table meeting tomorrow with all the LGBT organisations in Scotland to look at what we are doing here, how we can share that learning, how we can learn from others, and how we can impress on others the importance of the good work that we are doing here. I would definitely be happy to take forward that issue.
Participants in the fellowship are nominated by our four partner NGOs: Amnesty International, Beyond Borders, Front Line Defenders and the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund. The high quality of the nominations reflects the long track record of front-line work on human rights done by all four partners. That direct experience and expertise has been instrumental in enabling the scheme to be established.
This is the first year of the fellowship and we have invited three human rights defenders from three very different countries, who have a diverse range of interests. As you will understand, Presiding Officer, given the risks that some human rights defenders can face, it is important that we respect the privacy of participants. Not everyone wants, or can afford, a high public profile.
I want to make it clear that the scheme does not criticise specific countries or Governments. All nations, including Scotland, have human rights challenges to address and we should take to heart the principle that I have already mentioned: that anyone who acts to promote or protect human rights can be a human rights defender.
In debating the global challenge, we should also recognise that we have human rights defenders here in Scotland. I think that we have just heard from some of them in this chamber. Their work is something that we should encourage.
I have already had an opportunity to meet all three of this year’s fellows, and two of them also recently met the First Minister. I was deeply moved by their experiences and insights. Their account of their work and the challenges that they face has left a deep and lasting impression on me.
I know that they have a busy programme of activity planned, and I suspect that we in Scotland will learn as much from them as they will take from their experience of the fellowship. Our three fellows will return to their home countries at the end of the year to continue their work. Here in Scotland, the intention is that our work will also continue, and I sincerely hope that the fellowship will grow.
I am delighted that, in addition to the NGO partners that have been central to delivering the fellowship, and Dundee university, in its role as the host institution, representatives from the universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow have been able to contribute. I thank them for their invaluable support.
I am also delighted that the scheme has secured support from ProtectDefenders.eu, the EU human rights defenders mechanism, which plays an essential role in providing training, support, capacity building and emergency assistance to human rights defenders and has generously contributed match funding to support the Scottish fellowship scheme.
In conclusion, I formally welcome to Scotland the three fellows participating in this year’s scheme. On behalf of the Scottish Parliament, I extend our warmest regards and express our deepest respect for their work as human rights defenders. On behalf of us all, I wish our fellows every success as they settle in and enjoy life in Dundee and every success when they return home in December, refreshed and equipped to continue their essential work.
That the Parliament notes that 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; commends the vital work that human rights defenders undertake around the world, often at considerable risk to themselves and their families; welcomes the establishment of the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship and acknowledges the contribution made by all of the Fellowship partners, which are the Scottish Government, Amnesty International, Beyond Borders, Front Line Defenders, SCIAF and the universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews; notes in particular the central role played by the University of Dundee in hosting the Fellowship; commends also the work of ProtectDefenders.eu, the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism, in providing training, support, capacity building and emergency assistance to human rights defenders, including through its financial support for the Scottish Fellowship, and wishes the 2018 Fellows every success during their time in Scotland and on their return home.15:53
I welcome the minister to her new role. I am delighted to have the opportunity to open on behalf of the Conservatives in today’s debate on supporting and protecting human rights defenders. Their efforts to defend civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights can make a difference to the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
As we have heard, there is no typical human rights defender. They may be lawyers, politicians, teachers, students, farmers or healthcare workers, and the issues that they tackle include torture, executions, female genital mutilation or healthcare access. What unites this group of people is the desire to protect and promote human rights and democracy across the globe.
Sadly, being a human rights defender is not without its risks—far from it. The sensitivities of their work mean that they put themselves in danger. They can be harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, subjected to violence or detained. As we have heard, in 2017 alone, 312 of these brave individuals were killed, which is a stark reminder of the risks that they take every day. In fact, Amnesty International has hailed human rights defenders as
“some of the bravest people in the world”,
and I echo that sentiment.
The debate marks the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders, which recognised the importance of these individuals and the crucial role that they play in ensuring that the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights is fully recognised. In recognition of the serious risks that human rights defenders face, it is important that it is the UN member state that ensures that defenders are protected. The declaration says that defenders should have the right to defend human rights, to associate freely with others, to document abuses of human rights and to criticise offending Government bodies—it is right that they should have those rights. Although in recent years individuals have been attacked for what they have tried to do, it is vital that we ensure that they get that support. Many human rights defenders, particularly those in countries with poorer records on human rights, remain significantly at risk.
I will highlight the extremely important work that has happened across the United Kingdom recently. We should note that the UK was one of the first states to adopt a plan with specific commitments to protect human rights defenders. The national action plan, which was adopted in 2013, explicitly instructed our embassies and high commissions across the globe to support businesses and individuals involved in human rights issues. The protection of human rights defenders remains a priority for the UK Government, as was reflected in an updated national action plan in 2016. It outlined the work that is carried out by the International Service for Human Rights to deliver an intensive training and advocacy programme for human rights defenders in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, which the UK Government supported.
In 2017, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office looked at human rights and work that was being carried out around the world. To that end, the FCO has collaborated with the centre for applied human rights at the University of York to run a protective fellowship scheme that aims to support human rights defenders who are at risk. Over several years, through the FCO’s Magna Carta fund for human rights and democracy, the UK Government has also provided assistance for human rights defenders. That fund has supported projects run by civil society organisations and human rights defenders themselves.
Although there is always work to do, the UK Government's record on supporting human rights defenders politically, organisationally and financially is a strong one, which it is important we recognise. I also commend the work of many organisations, including the church organisations Open Doors, Release International, Aid to the Church in Need and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. They look at what happens to Christian individuals, including how they are being persecuted across the world for their faith. Christians and people of other faiths are experiencing increasing intolerance and are attacked daily because of their faith.
As we heard from the minister, there is outstanding work in Scotland, which I commend and echo. I welcome the lead of the Scottish human rights defender fellowship at the University of Dundee, which I commend and congratulate for what has been achieved so far. I look forward to seeing what can be achieved in the future. The collaborative nature of the project brings together Scottish universities, the Scottish Government and campaign groups, and it will give participants an opportunity to meet and learn about how to fight for human rights daily.
Scottish Conservatives are very happy to support the Scottish Government’s motion and we look forward to a very focused, passionate and consensual debate on the vital work that is carried out by these brave individuals who defend our rights. They take the risks and they should be supported.15:58
I, too, welcome the minister to her position. I will make a few remarks about the importance of human rights.
Speaking in 1941, Franklin D Roosevelt made a groundbreaking and world-changing speech on four freedoms. The importance, simplicity and power of the ideas that he set out have changed the world. He said:
“In the future days ... we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms ... The first is freedom of speech and expression ... The second is freedom of every person to worship god in his own way ... The third is freedom from want ... The fourth is freedom from fear ... That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”
FDR’s words were important because they changed the world. The prevailing view in the age of the great powers was that people were subjects of the state in which they lived and the laws that were set, no matter how diabolical or monstrous those laws were. His idea was that human rights are inherent entitlements that are based not on where one was born or on what one does but on one’s existence as a human being. Human rights were developed in part as a response to the atrocities of war and the Holocaust. The words uttered by FDR led directly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years ago and to the development of international institutions such as the International Criminal Court, which means that, today, limits are placed on what states can do and there are consequences for those who perpetrate crimes against humanity, even though that system does not work as perfectly as we might wish it to.
Human rights have changed the world, but they have also changed our country. There is much that we can be proud of. It was a Labour Government that enshrined the rights and freedoms that are contained in the European convention on human rights into UK law, which marked the birth of the Human Rights Act 1998. On a similar basis, we must welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to bring the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law, which will be welcome progress in the advancement of human rights in Scotland.
If we believe in human rights, we can never be complacent. We must challenge our Governments and, as parliamentarians, we must challenge ourselves on whether we are upholding those principles. For example, article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.
However, new statistics that were published yesterday show that almost a fifth of those living in the worst-off areas were worried about running out of food. On housing, the most recent statistics show an increase in homelessness and rough sleeping. It is one thing to deliver human rights in law but quite another to deliver them in practice, which is what we must all strive to do.
We must challenge and defend human rights, not just because they are important here in Scotland but because we live in a time when the international rule of law and the international institutions that underpin it are under attack and threat. Superpowers ignore international institutions and withdraw from international conventions on the basis of the narrow interests of their leaders.
Closer to home, dogmatic Euroscepticism, while currently focused on European Union institutions, flirts with quitting the Council of Europe and questions the legitimacy of the European Court of Human Rights. We must be willing to speak up and challenge other nations that seek to undermine the international rule of law and the human rights institutions that guarantee them.
Human rights had to be fought for and we must therefore fight to preserve and maintain them. Ultimately, we can have legitimacy in challenging others on human rights only if we are committed to challenging ourselves, too.
In that context, I welcome this debate to celebrate human rights defenders and their important work around the world. We on the Labour benches welcome the fellowship as an important step towards making a contribution to the effort to advance human rights around the world and challenging ourselves to ensure that they are advanced and honoured here in Scotland.
It is right that the motion acknowledges the risks that human rights defenders take. I acknowledge the partner organisations that have worked with the Scottish Government to make the fellowship possible: Amnesty International, Beyond Borders, Front Line Defenders, SCIAF and the universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews.
Scottish Labour is very happy to support the motion, because it is vital that we do not just make a gesture towards human rights but take practical steps to argue and fight for them.16:03
I thank the minister for bringing this debate to Parliament and I congratulate the Government and its partners on the important work that they do in this area.
As the motion says, this is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders.
Those who know me might regard me as a bit of a messy person. When I was clearing out my living room the other day, I found a book that was influential to me, which was about the Brazilian rubber tapper, environmentalist and trade unionist Chico Mendes, who died 20 years ago. He was not alone in the world, obviously, as someone who cared passionately both about the environment and about his people and defending them against the gross human rights violations that took place against them. Ultimately, he paid for that with his life.
It is such barbarous acts that drive human rights defenders today to act in defence of human rights. I want to touch on two broad areas that are core to the work of human rights defenders—journalism and indigenous rights. Journalists are at the forefront of recording events and sharing them with the world, and oppression of the press remains a powerful instrument for many regimes throughout the world to deny human rights. The minister mentioned the two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were detained by authorities in Myanmar for their reporting of the massacre of the Rohingya Muslims by security forces. After a protracted court case that lasted, I think, over nine months, they were sentenced to seven years in jail under a colonial-era official secrets act.
The “Mapping Media Freedom” report that was produced by Index on Censorship in partnership with the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders states that, last year, there were 1,089 reports of limitations to press freedom in Europe and neighbouring countries. A majority of those violations came from official or governmental bodies, with particular concerns in countries such as Russia. The report also states that 220 media workers were arrested or detained, 178 were physically assaulted and 367 experienced incidents such as psychological abuse, sexual harassment, trolling, cyberbullying and defamation. Furthermore, there were 192 cases of criminal charges or civil litigation, and 112 legal measures were raised against journalists in 2017.
The freedom to openly criticise those in authority and to instigate debate on topics of national, regional and local interest is one of the freedoms that we enjoy and cherish in Scotland. However, as Daniel Johnson said, it is not something that we can ever take for granted, and indigenous communities certainly cannot take it for granted.
I have long promoted and been an advocate for transparency in land rights. Regrettably, there are people across the world who are not so fortunate. They are routinely oppressed by Governments and corporations that exploit land and natural resources for the sake of turning our environment, water and land into commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.
This week, the Global Land Forum is holding its international conference, led by the International Land Coalition, in Bandung in Indonesia, to discuss the principles of people-centred land governance. Just yesterday, I listened to Gillian Caldwell, the chief executive officer of Global Witness, provide moving testimony on the human rights abuses that are occurring in Laos, Nigeria and Cambodia and the work of human rights defenders in those countries.
Such threats remain constant. Indeed, Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, has recognised the significance of the work that such people carry out to protect and conserve our fragile environment, particularly in areas of the world where fundamental human rights are routinely disregarded.
I welcome this debate. I commend the work of human rights defenders around the world and the efforts made here in Scotland to establish the Scottish human rights defender fellowship.16:08
I thank the Government for bringing the subject to the Parliament today, and I welcome Christina McKelvie to her role as Minister for Older People and Equalities. Christina and I served together on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee for the best part of three years. She is a person with tremendous command of the issues, and although she might have felt that my intervention was unkind or irreverent in today’s context, I remind her that it is important for human rights defenders—she is undoubtedly ours within the Scottish Government—to always speak truth to power and to ask awkward questions of powerful bodies.
I have been involved in human rights all my life, from leading Amnesty International letter-writing groups at school, and then at the inception of this Parliament, when I was working for the Liberal Democrats, at the start of devolution. I worked in children’s rights as convener of the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights and I sat on the leadership panel for the Scottish national action plan for human rights. That has culminated, I think, in my role on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee.
The subject is in my DNA, so I am deeply gratified that the Scottish Government has created the fellowships in Dundee. As Amnesty tells us, there is still a toxic and hostile environment for human rights defenders the world over. Globally, some 300 human rights defenders have been killed in the past year alone. Amnesty has identified the six riskiest professions that people undertake as human rights defenders. Unsurprisingly, they are professions that we would always associate with the hallmarks of a free and open society—such as labour activists, journalists, lawyers, judges, LGBTI rights campaigners, indigenous peoples activists and women’s rights campaigners. They face imprisonment and, in some cases, summary execution. They deserve our support.
There are threats to human rights across our world—even in societies that we had assumed had cracked the human rights balance and got it right. In Russia, 58 journalists have been killed since 1992, and gay rights activists are still being persecuted to this day. In China, the meticulous and systematic persecution of Falun Gong has occurred entirely on the ground of religious intolerance. There are even threats in cultures that we thought were liberal. For example, in the USA we have seen an erosion of rights—especially LGBT rights, and those of immigrants and refugees. I pick out those examples because those are countries with which we seek to do business and with which we foster developing relationships. We must use that position of power and influence to speak truth to power: we must insist on human rights observance.
I admit that I may have been making mischief in my intervention. However, my point was absolutely accurate: we need to get our own house in order first, and to challenge ourselves by asking whether we are doing due diligence on contracts that we sign on behalf of our people. As regards making rights real, I am delighted that we will finally incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but I am still anxious that we will not give our children access to justice in that regard.
Will the member take an intervention?
If it is quick; I do not have a huge amount of time.
I have read the report on education rights for autistic children that was published yesterday by autism societies. Such rights are important on that very point, given the lack of access that many suffer.
Absolutely. Full incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child would address exactly those issues.
I hope that we will recognise the rise of fake news and news outlets that constantly apologise for or cover up systematic human rights abuses. I call on all parties to follow Liberal Democrats in our party-wide boycott of outlets that peddle such untruth.
I support human rights fellowships, which are vital for our own learning and for international human rights observance. I will finish with a quotation. In June 1966, at the height of apartheid, Bobby Kennedy delivered a speech to human rights defenders at the University of Cape Town, in which he said:
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
I again thank the Scottish Government for bringing the motion to debate this afternoon.
We move to the open debate. Speeches should be of up to four minutes, please.16:12
The year 2018 is one for celebration. It marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, alongside the international human rights treaties, guarantees the enjoyment of all human rights by all people, without distinction. This afternoon’s debate focuses on the 20th anniversary of the declaration on human rights defenders, which emphasises that we all have a role to fulfil as human rights defenders in a global human rights movement.
I acknowledge the many hundreds of human rights defenders who were rallying peacefully at Faslane last weekend, and I thank them for all that they do to further the cause of peace and justice. In some places in the world, human rights defenders face death for standing up for their rights peacefully. Amnesty International estimates that 3,500 people have been murdered for their human rights work over the past 20 years—an average of 175 people each year.
Women who speak up are seen as being a threat to tradition, and are often subjected to forms of gender-based violence, in addition to the attacks that other defenders may face. Those can include sexual violence, stereotyped smears and defamation campaigns. Hina Shahnawaz was shot dead in Pakistan in February 2017. She worked with HelpAge International, which is an organisation that advocates for the rights of older people. She was a professional woman, financially independent and her family’s main provider, so she challenged socially accepted norms and gender roles for women in her country.
The partnership between the Scottish Government and the University of Dundee to provide the Scottish human rights defender fellowship is an important undertaking. I wish it every success and thank the campaign groups—Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund and Beyond Borders Scotland—that support it.
Scotland has a proud tradition of campaigners, from trade unionists and suffrage movements to equality groups, who have fought for the fair treatment of people who can face discrimination because of their race or disability, for example. I am sure that all of Scotland’s activists will be enthusiastic and keen to share their experiences. I wish the fellows good luck with their studies and hope that they return to their countries refreshed after their respite and ready to continue their really important work of progressing human rights in their countries.
There is, of course, work to be done in Scotland, too. We face our own challenges of poverty, inequality and Brexit. The Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998 share their 20-year anniversary with the declaration on human rights defenders. Those acts are fundamental to ensuring that human rights are placed at the centre of our democracy, and this year offers an opportunity for reflection on where Scotland is in promoting and progressing human rights.
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee’s inquiry into human rights and the Scottish Parliament has been looking at how the Parliament enhances its role as a human rights guarantor. The report, which should be ready in the late autumn, will set out a range of actions or road map for human rights in our Parliament. If those steps are taken, they will not just make the Scottish Parliament a human rights leader of legislatures in the UK; they will make it an exemplar globally.
One of the key objectives for the anniversary of the declaration on human rights defenders is to raise the profile of defenders around the world. I look forward to all the contributions in the debate and hope that it will go some way to contributing to that aim.16:17
I join colleagues in welcoming Christina McKelvie to her new role. Although I did not serve on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee with her for as long as Alex Cole-Hamilton did, I am absolutely sure that if anyone is going to shake things up and take into Government the passion that they showed in committee, it will be Christina McKelvie. I eagerly anticipate her help and support in ensuring that the committee’s recommendations in our forthcoming report are accepted. That will really help.
I also warmly welcome the fellowship, which is a very positive move.
I slightly disagree with a remark that Alex Cole-Hamilton made: he said that it is important that we get our own house in order first. I understand the sentiment behind the remark, but it is important that we do not wait to get everything perfect and right in Scotland before we share internationally the considerable expertise that we have developed.
It is important for all of us, as members of the Scottish Parliament, to remember that people have died in our own country—in the United Kingdom—over decades and centuries to defend human rights, and that there are many people who still feel persecuted and vulnerable. Just because we do not take our freedom for granted, it is not the case that we cannot get started on helping to build capacity worldwide. We should remember that, by having the fellowship based in the University of Dundee, we are also expanding our own expertise and knowledge.
Having made that distinction, I am conscious that I do not want to fall into the same trap as Alex Cole-Hamilton of being a pest and asking difficult questions, but I want to highlight in particular “Not included, not engaged, not involved: A report on the experiences of autistic children missing school”, which Daniel Johnson mentioned. Sitting at an event last night, I found it very difficult listening to parents who face the prospect of their children not being educated. I heard stories of young people in Scotland having been dragged along corridors and locked in padded rooms without windows in place of education. We have a lot of well-developed mechanisms and well-trodden pathways that we can use to tackle such issues, and we have the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland. Many of those issues could be taken on. The day after hearing from the parents of the children in question, it would be wrong not to highlight some of the issues that they face and the battles that they have to fight.
Such problems are often far more complicated than they appear. It is by having debates such as this, in which we take some of the politics and the heat out of the discussions that we have on human rights, that we will enable Parliament to make progress.
I pay tribute to human rights defenders worldwide. It is horrifying to think that 300 people have been killed in the past year just for trying to make the world and their community better places. I think that that number might be just the tip of the iceberg: many more people will have been subjected to gruesome abuse and death at the hands of human rights abusers. Even as we speak, there will be many more people who are living in fear. We have a duty to do everything that we can to support those individuals and to strengthen the international human rights network.
I am pleased to have spoken in today’s debate.16:21
I, too, welcome Christina McKelvie to her new role.
In yesterday’s news it was reported that the “proud Ness” event will take place on 6 October. That is news, of course, because the very idea that Inverness would host a pride event was recently challenged by a member of the Free Church, who wanted to stop it on
“biblical, religious and moral grounds”.
The petitioner had managed to amass some 600 signatures—a number that horrifies and serves to remind us all that human rights, and the freedom of assembly and association, can still be threatened in Scotland in 2018. Perhaps it is a timely reminder for us all.
Today’s motion calls on Parliament to note the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Attentive members might recall that 2018 marks the same special birthday for the largest town in my constituency—Glenrothes.
I first met Chantal Mrimi in January while attending a digital stories event that was run in conjunction with the Scottish Book Trust and supported by the Scottish Government. The event showcased a selection of stories about the people of Glenrothes. We Fifers are not always known for our cheerful disposition, but here was Chantal Mrimi, a former Rwandan refugee, taking to the stage one dreich January night in the Rothes halls to tell her tale.
Chantal’s parents were Tutsis who fled Rwanda during the massacres of the 1950s. The family came back from exile in Congo in the early 1990s. Chantal lost 27 members of her family in the Rwanda genocide. Her life was constantly under threat from grenades and mines, and she nearly lost both her siblings to malnourishment. When she first arrived in the UK, she had only about £40 to her name and spoke no English. She settled in Glenrothes in 1999 as a refugee. She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here is what Chantal told us one cold January night in Glenrothes:
“The investment in me by the health service, the countless therapy sessions, social services assistance and the availability of education have all enabled me to grow with human dignity and fulfil my potential. The opportunities offered to me by the people of Fife and their willingness to accept strangers have all been powerful to restore my faith in humanity. For that reason I will always feel an immense sense of gratitude towards Glenrothes as my home and place of work.”
We often take for granted the human rights to freedom from discrimination and to freedom from torture, and the right to life. The motion makes specific mention of the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders, which was officially adopted in a UN charter in 1998. The UN declaration defines a human rights defender as
“anyone working for the promotion and protection of human rights. This broad definition encompasses professional as well as non-professional human rights workers”.
In 1998, Chantal was still in Rwanda, and nearly 1 million of her fellow citizens had been killed in the genocide. Their right to life had been denied them. Chantal is a human rights defender. Since settling in Scotland, she has completed a degree, bought her own house and raised her family. She regularly sends money home to her parents in Rwanda to support the orphans whom they have taken in since the genocide. Chantal has worked as an interpreter locally, translating English into French, Swahili and Rwandan, and today she is employed at Fife Council in Glenrothes.
In June, I held an event in Parliament to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Glenrothes, and was delighted to welcome Chantal as a guest speaker. Earlier this month, she was recognised as Scottish woman of the year for her work with the Scottish Rwandan community. She regularly shares her story at local schools and with students.
Today’s motion speaks of the invaluable work of a number of organisations in defending and supporting human rights, but every community in Scotland has individuals like Chantal Mrimi who have had their human rights denied.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is often described as a milestone in the history of human rights, but we have moved on since 1948. Indeed, the declaration may have been monumental when it was published 70 years ago, but we should all be asking how its values are upheld today. Human rights, whether the right of minority groups to protest or the basic right to life, are everyone’s business. We must not look the other way.16:25
I start by welcoming the minister to her place, and by recognising her long-standing commitment to the human rights agenda. I have heard her give many speeches about human rights and equality from the back benches. Now she sits on the front bench. I remind her that, with great power comes great responsibility. Although she does not have the powers that she might like to have, she has a voice. I encourage her to use it with the same tenacity that she has demonstrated thus far.
Amnesty International, in its briefing on the debate for members, encourages us to focus on women human rights defenders, which is what I intend to do.
I will start with naming some of the rights that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to be protected; the right to freedom of association; the right to criticise Government bodies and agencies, and to make proposals to improve their functioning; and the right to provide legal assistance or other advice and assistance in the defence of human rights.
Those human rights are exercised every day by a woman called Bakira Hasecic, whom I have had the privilege of meeting on a number of occasions. People can read her story in the exhibition outside the MSPs block. She is a Bosnian citizen from a town called Višegrad. In April 1992, there was a knock at the door. At the time, her town was 60 per cent Muslim. A local police officer called Milan Lukic and 12 fellow officers forced their way into her house and raped her daughter. When she tried to stop them, they raped her. Milan Lukic set up a rape camp in Bosnia, which was used to ethnically cleanse Bakira Hasecic’s town. That forced many of the women and, in fact, all the Muslim community to flee and to seek refugee status, many of whom did so in bordering Croatia.
Bakira Hasecic has devoted her adult life to defending the human rights of her fellow citizens. The first courageous and incredible thing that she did, in 1998, was to lead the return march to her hometown after the Bosnian war. When she got there, she said that she had nothing to fear, to feel ashamed of or to be embarrassed about, because it was not she who had committed the evil.
When she returned home, she went around in her car, wound down the window and took photographs of the men who had raped her, her neighbours and her fellow citizens. She started to build case files about the men in her town who had committed those horrendous war crimes and atrocities. Her work eventually led to her setting up the Association of Women Victims of War, which she runs to this day.
One thing that she did in the early days of setting up the association was chain herself to a building in her home town, where 22 people had been murdered by the Serbian army. She did so because she knew that the Serbian forces were going to try to demolish the building, which contained evidence of their crimes. She chained herself to the front door and called the world’s media. The Serbian army was unable to knock down the building, and the men who committed the atrocities were tried.
To this day, Bakira Hasecic lives under threat to her life. Many Serbians who live in her home town would like her to discontinue her work of advancing the rights of women in their country and around the world. She was one of 25,000 to 50,000 women who were raped in Bosnia during the war, and she seeks justice for them every day by collating evidence about the crimes that were committed against them. It was a document that she collated that went to the Hague that led to many of those men being convicted of war crimes.
It is a great honour to have met Bakira Hasecic on several occasions. I last saw her in July, when she went to Glasgow Caledonian University to receive her honorary degree, which I hope the Parliament will recognise and celebrate. On that day, she was asked what her hobbies are. She said that her two favourite things in life are smoking and capturing war criminals. I am sure that we can collectively agree with at least half of that statement.16:29
I, too, warmly welcome the minister to her new post. I am one of the members of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of whom she speaks, and I can promise her a very enjoyable experience when she comes back to visit us in the near future.
The year 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights defenders and the 70th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN declaration on human rights defenders tells us that we all have a role to fulfil as human rights defenders, and it emphasises that there is a global human rights movement that involves us all.
The declaration’s full name is the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It is perhaps a bit wordy, but it encapsulates the importance of the concept across our society.
I am sure that everyone in the chamber will be aware that human rights defenders are people who act to promote or protect human rights, but perhaps some of us are unaware that they include children and young people. Children and young people are working together or on their own the length and breadth of Scotland to tackle issues such as bullying, homophobia, sectarianism and disability discrimination.
In my constituency, several schools have developed new equalities groups that are driven by young people and which actively tackle issues in their schools. The ethos is very much about what we do, not who we are. There are children and young people in Scotland right now who do not even realise that they are human rights defenders and are not aware of the impact that their contributions will make—and are already making—on others.
In the Scottish Parliament earlier this year, I, along with Johann Lamont, had the honour of officially accepting the strategic plan for 2018 to 2020 from the Children and Young People’s Commissioner. The plan, which was put together with huge input from children and young people, covers three main topics:
“To be a successful Children and Young People’s Commissioner ... To establish a culture of children’s human rights”
“To make sure that children’s human rights are at the centre of laws, policies and practice”.
I thank Bruce Adamson and his team of inspirational young advisers.
I also thank all the teachers and staff who give up their valuable time in schools to support young people who are defending human rights. They are not only making a difference to the young defenders but having an impact on those whose rights they are upholding.
Children and young people are crucial to the promotion of human rights in Scotland. They are assisting the culture change across Scottish society that is empowering and educating children to have a compassionate approach to life. By encouraging them to help others to defend those rights, we will start to bring down the walls that we have built for ourselves—bigotry, religious divides, racism, homophobia and, dare I say it, even political differences.
Normalising respect for and dedication to human rights from a young age is already empowering adults to see one another from a more human point of view. I am proud that, as a nation and a Parliament, we are actively committing ourselves to that approach and that young people are involved, too.
Many of our young human rights defenders are off to Geneva this week to discuss human rights. I know that others will join me in wishing them all the best for their trip.
This week, Glasgow hosts a massive conference on adverse childhood experiences. Human rights are violated when a child is subjected to adverse experiences, some of which can affect them for the rest of their lives. What better way of helping our children and young people through an adverse experience than to take a human rights approach to it? Human rights defenders—be they old or young, and wherever they are on the globe—are invaluable and cannot be commended enough. Human rights are for everyone.16:33
I welcome the minister to her place on the front bench. We do not always see eye to eye politically, but I have absolutely no doubt that she will be a forthright defender of human rights in Parliament and in Scotland. I welcome her prompt engagement with, for example, the LGBT community.
Yesterday, as part of Amnesty International’s “Brave” campaign, a mural was unveiled in Kabul to pay tribute to some of the human rights defenders who have lost their lives, particularly a group of 10 journalists who were killed earlier this year while reporting a bombing. I am sure that members will join me in paying homage to those valiant photographers, who paid the ultimate price in reporting on the conflict in Afghanistan. Their story is one of many.
Schemes such as the UK Government’s national action plan and the Scottish Government’s human rights defender fellowship are indeed welcome moves. However, I caveat that by making the point that it is not always in statutory bodies that we find extraordinary actions. Charities, NGOs, Government agencies and well-organised action groups are important, but so, too, are the often-forgotten voices of the individual.
When I was a member of the Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, the thing that struck me the most was the notion that human rights are other people’s rights. There is a perception that defenders of human rights live in war zones, challenge dictators or fight against brutal regimes, and that they fight high-profile campaigns in a high-profile manner. However, the reality is far from that. I have seen defenders of human rights in Leith in Edinburgh at a meeting with a group of residents who were fighting their local authority for better housing because the status quo breached their human right to basic and adequate housing. Human rights are, indeed, everyone’s rights.
In the brief time that I have—it is a shame that I have only a few minutes—I also want to talk about the modus operandi of human rights defenders in the modern day, what it means to be a human rights defender and how much that has changed, principally through changes in technology. I am curious about how tech can be used to help activists with self-protection and to spread truth and propagate the horrors of the world to the world. However, technology can also be the downfall of human rights defenders. It can be used to monitor, trap and in some cases capture activists.
On the positive side, tech has been used in innovative ways. Members may recall Amnesty International’s Panic Button app, which ran for three or four years. The app sent out a distress call and enabled GPS function so that the person could be tracked. That was a good use of technology, but unfortunately the project was shelved due to a lack of funding and resource, which is a shame.
The downside is that technology is used to expose weaknesses in activism. It can expose people’s whereabouts, identities and networks, and it is used to build up mountains of data and evidence against people through leakages, digital traces, surveillance and, on occasion, physical interception. Protection International is an organisation that educates people in best practice in the protection of human rights defenders. It produces a manual, which details the ways in which technology can be used to hack, monitor and abuse defenders. Recently, Amnesty International was the victim of a cyberattack through malware that was disguised as positive communication, which unfortunately led to some Saudi Arabian rights activists being compromised.
In the context of 21st century human rights defence, technology can often make the difference between freedom and capture or, in some cases, life and death. Let us have a debate to praise state-sponsored programmes and initiatives and let us commend new bodies and agencies, but let us remember that it is in the everyday that we also find the extraordinary.16:38
I welcome my friend Christina McKelvie to her role as minister. She already knows how delighted I am that she has the role that she was born to have.
I am standing in for Sandra White, who is a human rights defender herself. I know that she wanted to use a Palestinian example and that she was going to speak about Awni Abu Shamsiyya from Hebron in Palestine. When I had a quick look at what he does, I discovered that his whole family are human rights defenders, and that he follows in the footsteps of his mother Faiza and his father Imad. The family have been documenting and filming human rights abuses in Palestine for many years and bearing witness to them so that we can understand them.
I will read out an extract from something that Imad wrote in 2016. He said:
“Two ... ambulances rush to the scene. They offer no assistance to the two critically injured Palestinians (one of them was in fact probably dead at this point), and do not even attempt to assess their situation. All their efforts focus on the soldier, whose condition”
“far from critical. At this point another soldier—an army medic, as it turns out—walks forward a few paces, hefts his rifle, and casually shoots the still moving”
“in the head. Nobody present appears to be surprised or disturbed in any way by what they have just seen. But I was present. And I was disturbed. My name is Imad Abu Shamsiyya. I shot that video.”
The recording of such violations helps the rest of the world to see what is really going on. Imad initially decided to start filming because his own family was being attacked. As time went on he began to record things that he saw, although he knew that by doing so he was making his family more of a target. He said:
“As time went on, the attacks against the family continued. Our younger daughter, Marwa, had her hair set on fire. Saleh, the baby of the family, was stabbed in the hand ... there have been the attacks against the whole family. About a year ago I woke up after midnight and realised that there was a fire burning outside of the house which had already reached one of the rooms. The neighbours rushed to help us put it out. Two months after that, by a lucky coincidence, I happened to see a settler on our roof. He was trying to poison our water tank. The video camera meant we were able to document these attacks. And by this time the whole family had started to film, and much of the neighbourhood.”
The testimony of the Shamsiyya family is an indication of the danger into which those who record and observe can put themselves in order to let the rest of the world see what is going on. Their bravery in doing that should not be underestimated. In addition to some of the attacks on the family, Awni, Imad’s son, who is another film maker, was falsely accused of crimes and imprisoned. Thankfully, he has now been released, but that was due to him again bearing witness with a camera.
“As Palestinians, we never feel safe. We have lived all of our lives in a country where we are made to feel that we are always in the wrong place at the wrong time ... Whenever there is trouble, people call on us to come round with our cameras ... When Faiza stands filming, fearlessly, in front of a gang of violent settlers, it helps to show that we still have our resolve. When you have a camera in your hands, you feel that there is at least something you can do to take control of a situation in which you can easily feel powerless.”
The empowerment that those people feel by doing something when they feel that they are up against it is really important. The Shamsiyya family embody the most potent power that there is, which is determination—determination in the face of danger, non-violent involvement where violence is all around and using words and pictures, which is the most powerful weapon in the defence of human rights.16:42
I welcome the minister to her new post. I know that she will be a vocal and determined advocate across all areas of her portfolio. There is little time for me in closing for Scottish Labour to cover the excellent contributions from across the chamber. This has been a short but nevertheless powerful debate, showing what human rights mean to us as parliamentarians and as free citizens.
We are fortunate in Scotland to have a strong and varied number of human rights organisations that campaign and provide advocacy for those who feel oppressed or suffer discrimination. Since its formation in 1999, this Parliament has shown that we are all human rights defenders. Today, in many countries, there are millions of people without the basic human rights that we expect, whether that is the right to shelter, the right to food, the right to be gay, the right to be transgender or the right to be political or religious. We in Scotland and the UK have a role to play in protecting and advocating human rights around the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be true to its title and be universal and available to all. It is fantastic that the Scottish human rights defender fellowship is working in partnership with global and national human rights organisations. We welcome the fellowship and the potential that it has to educate and liberate people. Albeit with a very small budget, it is money well spent in the battle to promote human rights around the world.
The human rights leaders of the past—the giants of history—would be ashamed at the role of some of our world leaders today with respect to human rights. We have seen Donald Trump in America, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Recep Erdogan in Turkey attacking the human rights of their populations and the minorities within those populations, so it is more important than ever that we show leadership in human rights.
It was a Labour Government that enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998 the rights and freedoms that are contained in the European convention of human rights. I welcome the progress that has been made by the Scottish Government to safeguard existing human rights. However, despite the Scottish Government being a human rights guarantor, there are areas of its policy that fail to protect and deliver the rights that we take for granted.
For example, I welcome the First Minister’s intention to
“incorporate the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law”,
but cuts to local authorities and education are hampering the rights of the child as we speak.
The recent report by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee found that disabled people are being denied their rights to accessible housing due to a severe shortage of accessible homes. Disabled people are being robbed of dignity with the limited access to suitable toilets. I hope that we strengthen rights for disabled people by delivering “changing places” toilets all around Scotland.
We also have a serious homelessness problem with the number of rough sleepers increasing for the second year running. We need more social housing.
I cannot speak in a debate about human rights and not mention Gypsy Travellers in Scotland, who are a group of people who face obstacles and discrimination that few other minorities face in this country, such as in access to healthcare, education, housing and sites.
I welcome the Scottish human rights defenders fellowship and the potential that it has to promote human rights in other parts of the world. The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have crucial roles as human rights defenders to ensure that cuts to public services that disproportionately impact children, the poorest, the elderly and the disabled do not restrict the freedoms and rights that have been hard won over decades.16:47
Like other members, I welcome Christina McKelvie to her new role. I know that she will be determined and full on when it comes to fighting for equalities and human rights in her portfolio.
As other members in the chamber today have said, it is great to have the opportunity to mark our support for human rights defenders around the globe. They are at the forefront of the work to promote human rights and democracy, often at great personal risk. In many places, they are persecuted, imprisoned, attacked or even killed because of their work. It is very humbling to have a debate and come together as parliamentarians to recognise the huge sacrifices that are made by those promoting and protecting the human rights of others.
Around the globe, there are people defending the basic human rights that we often take for granted. They address all human rights concerns, standing against torture, arbitrary detention and FGM, and campaigning for better access to housing, healthcare, education, food and water.
Human rights defenders are described by Amnesty International as
“some of the bravest people in the world”,
because the sensitive nature of their work means that they and people close to them are targeted with all kinds of abuse. In 2017 alone, more than 300 human rights defenders were killed and, concerningly, Amnesty International has noted a recent surge in repression and attacks on human rights defenders. Significantly, their repression is enforced not only by individuals but by Governments, security forces, businesses and armed groups—organisations that are threatened when their authority or reputation is called into question.
Human rights defenders can come from all walks of life and might include journalists, teachers, farmers, lawyers and health professionals. We heard Kezia Dugdale speak passionately about the horrendous crimes that were committed against women during the Bosnian war and about the amazing work that Bakira Hasecic continues to do.
I am a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, which carried out an inquiry on how to embed human rights in the Scottish Parliament so that it can be a guarantor of human rights. I found the inquiry extremely enlightening and informative. We met some amazing people whom I would certainly call human rights defenders in their communities, as Jamie Greene mentioned.
Significantly, 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a milestone document in the history of human rights. Proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948, it set out for the first time a common standard of fundamental human rights to be universally protected. Fifty years later, the UN adopted the declaration on human rights defenders, which recognised the importance and legitimacy of defenders and the vital role that they play in making the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a reality.
Although the declaration is not legally binding, several states have recently adopted laws that explicitly protect human rights defenders and have established their own national protection programmes. In Scotland, I am pleased to see the creation of the Scottish human rights defenders fellowship, which is a partnership that will see international human rights campaigners come to Scotland to study at the University of Dundee and build relationships with Scottish human rights and equalities organisations. I sincerely hope that the initiative succeeds in giving participants a place of safety to harbour the skills and networks that are necessary to continuing their work. I was also pleased to hear Alexander Stewart speaking in detail about what the UK Government is doing to protect human rights.
There is always more that we can do. As Daniel Johnson and other members said, we cannot be complacent. As Oliver Mundell said, we also need to look at ourselves when we are speaking about children who have autism and their rights to education. I was also at last night’s event and I found it unbelievable to hear what children are going through in schools just now.
Internationally, it is great to see the joint hosting of a human rights defenders world summit in Paris next month. That event will bring together 150 humans rights defenders from around the world to discuss and debate with global leaders from Governments, the UN and the private sector.
In closing, I again note my gratitude to human rights defenders around the globe. As we go about our daily lives, we should all take a moment to think about those who put themselves at great personal risk to protect and promote the rights of others. It would be a minimal sacrifice compared to what those people go through to defend human rights. I wish the 2018 fellows every success during their time in Scotland and on their return home.16:52
I thank members for their contributions to the debate today, and for their kind words to me. I believe that as a band on the committee, we became the defenders of human rights in this place. I am sure that if we work together, we can make more of a contribution.
Jamie Greene reminded me about cybercrime, which we do not think about a lot. We covered so many issues today. I hope that I get through them as I go through my summing up.
The situation for human rights defenders around the world reminds us that it is unacceptable for any of the rights that are contained in the universal declaration to be denied to a person simply because of the country or region in which they happen to live. Daniel Johnson reminded us never to be complacent and of the importance of FDR’s four freedoms, which reminded me to go back and look at them again and make sure they are further entrenched in my thinking.
We heard the poignant testimony of Imad in Palestine—I have heard Sandra White talk about Imad on many occasions—and we heard about the attacks on his human rights defender family.
We also heard why documentation is important to human rights defenders. Andy Wightman reminded us about the job that front-line journalists do in ensuring that that documentation is kept.
That is why the Scottish Government is committed to embedding human rights, dignity and equality at the heart of everything that we do, and doing so in a way that has a practical and meaningful effect on the lives of the people of Scotland as well as the international community, which is why we have the fellows here.
Embedding human rights means not just having the laws that we have heard about today on the statute book, but taking whatever action is necessary to make them real for each and every one of us. I reassure Kezia Dugdale that I will keep my voice raised in the debate when I am in Government meetings.
The Government is already taking action across a range of areas to advance gender equality, promote fair work, make progress on disabled people’s rights and build a social security system in Scotland that places people at its centre. Our work to secure legislation on pardons for men from the LGBT community who were convicted of historical crimes that are no longer crimes was a high point for me in this chamber. We faced up to the fact that we had done wrong; we took responsibility for that and fixed the situation. We were all human rights defenders on that issue.
As members know, the First Minister has established an independent advisory group to ensure that, whatever the outcome of Brexit—I hate to mention it, but we have to—Scotland can keep pace with European Union standards and continue to lead on human rights. Our programme for government commits us to responding in full to the advisory group’s recommendations and to incorporating the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am sure that Ruth Maguire and Alex Cole-Hamilton await that eagerly.
In recognising the vital role that human rights defenders play around the world, I am heartened by the range of activity that is taking place. Alongside our fellowship, great stuff is going on to demonstrate practical support for such work. This year, the Faculty of Advocates launched the Scottish bar international human rights award to honour men and women overseas who have championed human rights in the most challenging circumstances.
I am sure that Gail Ross and Alex Cole-Hamilton will be interested that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is to hold a day of general discussion on the theme of children as human rights defenders. I thank Gail Ross for her work to bring adverse childhood experiences to the forefront in the Parliament. We take seriously that important work, and John Swinney engaged with a conference today on the subject.
Many civil society organisations, including organisations in Scotland, have expressed support for the global community of human rights defenders. They want that community to be awarded the 2018 Nobel peace prize and I am sure that we can support that.
Our colleague from Glenrothes, Jenny Gilruth, told us a story with a lovely ending. She talked about the work of Chantal Mrimi as a human rights defender not only in the country that Chantal came from but in the country that she now calls home. What a champion Jenny Gilruth is for Chantal, who reminds us of the genocide in Rwanda, which took place not long ago in the grand scheme of things.
As the minister with responsibility for older people—as well as equalities and human rights—it would not be appropriate for me to close the debate without talking about older people. On 1 October, we will celebrate the UN’s international day of older people, in the year when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has its 70th birthday. The theme this year is celebrating older human rights champions. The Scottish Pensioners Forum will hold its annual demonstration to mark older people’s day outside Parliament tomorrow, when I will meet some of its members to discuss their issues.
To return to the human rights defender fellowship, I am genuinely excited about the role that it can play in developing the skills of individuals who campaign for human rights among some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged people. Alexander Stewart talked about funding, which is always welcome, and the more that it comes from the UK Government, the better. That would be helpful. I thank again Amnesty International in Dundee for its support, which has included funding.
The fellowship’s potential goes far beyond the chamber. As our fellows share what they have learned in Scotland with people with whom they are working at home, and as their work takes root in their communities, we will start to see changes in attitudes and improvements in people’s lives through the realisation of basic human rights.
Kezia Dugdale asked me to raise my voice, which I reassured her I will always do. Mary Fee reminded me that rights can sometimes be undermined in so-called developed countries, so we must never be complacent. I very much assure her that, as the new chair of the Gypsy Traveller ministerial working group, I will champion that cause and look for her support to do that.
The fellowship can be a crucial part of Scotland’s contribution to global development. As a small country that shares its ideals, its experiences and its vision to make the world a better place, Scotland is well placed to contribute.
In the short minute that is left, I will address a few women’s rights issues that were raised. Amnesty International has highlighted that women human rights defenders face additional attacks because they have dared to be women who stand up for rights. Kezia Dugdale gave us a clear insight into the impact on women in Bosnia during the Balkans war, when rape was used as a weapon of war. I hope that Bakira Hasecic’s work, which I welcome, will mean that such attacks diminish. I encourage Kezia Dugdale to raise that in the chamber, as she always does.
The Scottish Government’s position on such threats is unequivocal—we do not accept them. Our commitment to equality for women and girls is steadfast and will always remain at the heart of our vision of a fairer and more equal Scotland. That is why the First Minister’s announcement on tackling period poverty in Malawi is welcome.
Ruth Maguire reminded us that we also face our own challenges here, and she reminded us of the work of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. I eagerly await the publication of the committee’s report on how we can take forward the Parliament as the human rights defender that we all want it to be.
We have had a great debate today. It has been a good outing for me and I look forward to working with everybody. There are so many areas where we can all work together. I give the fellows my best wishes and this Parliament’s best wishes, and I hope that they have a great experience in Scotland.