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What better way than a bill to mark the UNCRC’s birthday?

For our 25 Calls campaign, Bruce Adamson and young campaigner Ruby made a plea for children to be supported to become human rights defenders. One year on, he says Scotland is making progress in protecting and legislating for children’s rights – but we aren’t going far enough, fast enough

Being a human rights defender is more than just knowing about your rights and exercising them – it requires action. Bravely standing up, speaking out and demanding change. Children don’t have the same political or economic power as adults, so demanding change takes even more bravery. As adults we need to address that power imbalance.

Children tell us how frustratingly slow political, legislative and social change can be, especially in a world where technological change happens so quickly. Yet, despite the difficulties they face, children all over Scotland are making a difference by defending their rights and the rights of others, and they need our support.

Last summer I found myself sitting in a large tree with then 9-year-old human rights defender Ruby. Ruby is all about action – she wants girls and boys to be encouraged equally to be adventurous and is against all gender stereotyping. She was so incensed by the stereotypical images used in a clothing catalogue she wrote to them to challenge them. She told them their advertising was wrong, that girls want to adventure just as much as boys and that they need to have the right clothes to help them do that. Sparkles aren’t practical, and skirts get caught in tree branches. So, we climbed a tree to talk about it. Ruby told me she wanted more children to learn advocacy skills and for the government and schools to support young human rights defenders to lead change. Together we made Call 13 of Children in Scotland’s 25 Calls campaign: to support children to become human rights defenders.

Young human rights defenders are at the heart of our work. We supported children and young people from the Children’s Parliament, Scottish Youth Parliament and Who Cares? Scotland to take an active role in the UN Day of General Discussion on ‘Children as Human Rights Defenders’ held in Geneva in September. We created Scotland’s first Young Human Rights Defenders Action Group. Their Promote, Protect, Defendreport outlines eight recommendations on how the Scottish Government, Parliament and public bodies can and should be supporting children as human rights defenders.

Almost half a year has passed since Promote, Protect, Defendwas laid before the Scottish parliament and a whole year since the 25 Calls campaign was launched. In that time, we’ve seen some progress, but not nearly enough. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) turns 30 shortly and it’s right that we take stock.

Through Green MSP John Finnie’s leadership, along with the tireless campaigning of civil society groups and my office, Scotland will soon pass a law stopping the assault of children for the purpose of punishment. While we are one of the last countries in Europe to protect children, we are the first in the UK and our work is inspiring others.

After much debate and despite unprecedented intervention from the Council of Europe and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, our parliament voted to set the age of criminal responsibility at just 12; two years below the international minimum standard. Despite calls from the UN to at the very least commit to a higher age on a set timetable, the Scottish Government has only agreed to a review.

My office’s investigation into restraint and seclusion in Scotland’s schools in December 2018 showed there was no consistent approach to recording and monitoring restraint. The Scottish Government has failed to publish a human rights-based national policy to address this.

As co-chair of the Rights Work Group of the Independent Care Review I have worked with young care-experienced human rights defenders from across Scotland. It is their voices and experience that is driving the change needed to address failures in respecting their rights to family life, healthcare, education, housing, and justice.

Working with the Children’s Future Food Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, young human rights defenders highlighted that we are not doing enough to address poverty as a human rights issue.

As part of the European Network of Young Advisers, young people from Scotland have demanded that more is done on mental health.

Time marches on.

In 2017 the First Minister made a long-awaited commitment to incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law. It is the most important thing we can do to protect children’s rights in Scotland. The government has promised incorporation by 2021, but progress has been slow and their proposal in the Programme for Government sets out their intention not to introduce it until the last year of Parliament.

Along with Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights) we convened a group of world-leading experts to draft a bill for incorporation, published and presented to government in November 2018. Despite this, nearly a year later the Government has not produced their own bill.

There is a significant risk that the Scottish Government might propose a suite of rights – essentially cherry-picking which it wants to include – or worse, rewriting the articles,  thus breaking away from the international commitments made. This could be presented as an improvement of the rights, but in reality, it will not offer the full protection of the Convention to children in Scotland and will lose the connection to the rich understanding of rights built up by the international community.

The legislation must make rights justiciable and it must fully and directly incorporate the UNCRC. It should be produced urgently to allow proper scrutiny by parliament before the session ends in early 2021. Further delay will set the bill up to fail as parliamentary time runs out. We’re calling for a bill to be laid before the Scottish Parliament on the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC. What better way is there for Scotland to celebrate?

The more children I talk with about their rights, the more I am reminded that our perception of time shifts with age. One theory is that we perceive time as a proportion of the time we have been alive. For a now 10-year-old like Ruby, one year equals a whole tenth of her life. For the adults making decisions about her life, rights and future that same year equates to a small fraction, so it can be easy to forget the necessary urgency of the decisions being made.

We need to move faster on children’s human rights. Surely the least we can do is ensure that by the time Ruby starts high school, her rights are fully protected in law?

Bruce Adamson is Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland

Visit the Commissioner's website

25 Calls campaign

Read our original 25 calls, view press coverage and read further responses

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Defending our human rights

Find our more about the work of the Scottish Human Rights Defenders

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UNCRC: Government must act now

We called for the Scottish government to act swiftly on incorporation

Read our news story

Magazine: UNCRC special edition

Celebrating 30 years of the UNCRC

Visit the magazine page