From principle to practice: making sure Wales delivers on human rights promises

Published 10/12/2019   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. [...] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

Today (10 December) is Human Rights Day. On this day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document marked the beginning of human rights as we know them today – a framework of obligations to uphold basic rights and freedoms. But how this works in practice and what it means for people’s everyday lives is not always understood.

The UK and Welsh governments are signed up to a range of human rights promises internationally (like the European Convention on Human Rights and seven core UN human rights treaties), at a UK level (like the Human Rights Act 1998) and in Wales (like the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011).

But how do we know if Wales is delivering on these promises?

Strengthening protection

Wales has chosen a path that’s increasingly different to the rest of the UK on human rights, like when it became the first country to include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in law.

The Welsh Government’s recent consultation on its new strategic equality objectives for 2020-2024 suggests eight long-term aims, one of which is developing ‘strong and progressive equality and human rights protections for Wales’.

It highlights the work commissioned by the Welsh Government to explore incorporating more UN human rights treaties into Welsh law, and the possibility of a human rights Bill for Wales. This was something recommended by the joint work of two Assembly committees in 2018 to safeguard human rights in Wales after Brexit.

The Welsh Government is also consulting on introducing the ‘socio-economic duty’ (also repeatedly recommended by Assembly committees). This would require public bodies to make decisions in a way that tackles inequalities caused by socio-economic disadvantage. The consultation cites the obligations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the repeated recommendations of the UN on introducing the duty. Scotland led the way by doing so in 2018.

Rights in action

Translating high level rights (like the right to a family and private life) into reality can be difficult. Governments often focus on the protections themselves rather than looking at what it means for people’s everyday experiences. And where action has been taken, its impact is not necessarily tracked.

For example, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) requires states to prevent discrimination on the basis of maternity. But in 2016 the EHRC found that up to 54,000 women in England, Wales and Scotland lose their jobs each year because of maternity discrimination.

To work towards the wellbeing goal of ‘a more equal Wales’, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales suggests that public bodies should introduce targets for the retention of employees when they return from maternity leave. The Assembly’s Equality Committee also recommended that public bodies should be required to collect data on the retention rates of employees returning from maternity leave, which the Welsh Government accepted. The information collected will help us understand if the CEDAW commitments are improving people’s lives in reality.

Another example is removing the defence of reasonable punishment, which was repeatedly recommended by the UN. Scotland has now removed the defence, and Wales is currently legislating to do so too. The Welsh Government made clear that human rights were core to its decision to legislate on this issue.

Tracking UN recommendations

Governments provide reports to the UN on each treaty they are signed up to, and the UN makes ‘concluding observations’, which include specific recommendations for change.

But many of the UN’s recommendations are not acted upon, and so they are frequently repeated across UN reviews/reporting cycles. Where progress is being made, governments often fail to make links to recommendations.

To help address this, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has launched to help track UN recommendations. They can be filtered by the responsible government, issue, treaty or group of people affected.

Some of the recommendations applicable to the Welsh Government include:

  • making the core UN treaties part of domestic law;
  • reviewing the availability of refuges, domestic abuse services and rape support centres;
  • ensuring that new infrastructure projects are fully inclusive and accessible for disabled people, from transport to provision of information and services, and access to the built environment, and
  • strengthening the independence of Children’s Commissioners in line with the Paris Principles and UN advice on the implementation of the CRC.

The UN and the EHRC have repeatedly called for the establishment of national mechanisms for implementation, reporting and follow-up (NMIRFs) to help monitor human rights obligations in a more co-ordinated way.

Scotland addressed this by developing a national human rights action plan for 2013-17. A new plan has been proposed, which is based around specific human rights themes. Could Wales follow in its footsteps by establishing a monitoring system for human rights issues in devolved areas?

Everyone’s responsibility

Other bodies are key to monitoring human rights issues and pushing for change, like parliaments, ombudsmen, commissioners, the judiciary, civil society and individuals. For example:

  • The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales recently published a collection of his cases where human rights considerations were either raised as part of the complaint, or were pivotal to his findings.

The Ombudsman’s Equality and Human Rights Casebook 2019-20 demonstrates the practical impact of human rights law in devolved areas such as end of life care, housing, mental health, school transport, social services, maternity care and local authority funding decision-making. The casebook outlines what went wrong from a human rights perspective, and what could be done differently in the future from a practical perspective.

  • The Children’s Commissioner for Wales’s recent annual report urges against complacency on children’s rights, stating that “we’ve been world leaders in promoting and protecting children’s rights; we must not stop now.”

The report also makes a range of specific recommendations for the Welsh Government about children’s rights to education, to participate in decisions about their lives, and to be safe. You can read further analysis of the Commissioner’s recommendations in our recent blog post.

  • Responses to the Welsh Government’s draft international strategy also highlighted that human rights could play a more prominent role in the goal to “[s]how the world what we are doing as a globally responsible nation”. The strategy could provide an opportunity for Wales to demonstrate how it is meeting international human rights obligations.

Wales’s distinct approach to human rights continues to develop. The exploratory work around treaty incorporation and the final equality objectives will be important indicators of how deeply the Welsh Government wants the issue to be embedded in Welsh policy in the future.

Article by Hannah Johnson, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales