On Monday 10 December, celebrated across the globe as the International Human Rights Day, the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership published its recommendations on “how Scotland can continue to lead by example in the field of human rights”. Entitled “Recommendations for a new human rights framework to improve people’s lives”, the report recommends that an Act of the Scottish parliament is passed to embed economic, social, cultural and environmental rights into Scots law. The First Minister has welcomed the recommendations, and as a first step has announced a taskforce will be established in the new year to progress the plans.
Scottish Environment LINK’s members and Fellows have, during 2018, been pleased to attend meetings of the Advisory Group’s reference group as well as a specific Round Table meeting on the environment. LINK was, therefore, delighted to welcome the report’s recommendation in relation to environmental rights.
The Group have recommended that the new Scottish legislation should include, alongside economic, social and cultural rights a specific right to a healthy environment. It says:
“This overall right will include the right of everyone to benefit from healthy ecosystems which sustain human well-being as well the rights of access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice. The content of this right will be outlined within a schedule in the Act with reference to international standards, such as the Framework Principles on Human Rights and Environment developed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and the Aarhus Convention.”
Scottish Environmental LINK’s Chair, Charles Dundas, responded that:
“This is a hugely important recommendation which recognises the fundamental significance of the environment to our health and wellbeing. We cannot get to a fairer Scotland without a healthy environment.”
LINK’s members therefore welcome this recommendation and look forward to working with the new taskforce and subsequently the Scottish Parliament to implement this proposal. In addition to the general importance of this proposal, it is also important to note that the Advisory group was set up in the context of ‘Brexit’ with the First Minister commenting:
“I wanted to ensure Brexit does not harm human rights in Scotland and that we remain in step with future advances in EU human rights. I also asked for recommendations to ensure Scotland is an international leader in respecting and enhancing human rights”.
Intrinsically, the environment is an international and cross-border issue and 70-80% of our domestic laws relating to the environment originate in Europe. Thus, there can be no doubt that, if or when Brexit happens, the environment – and the laws and policies to protect and enhance our environment – will be severely affected. To meet the First Minister’s ambition of international leadership, therefore, this recommendation must be fully and honestly implemented in parallel with other actions made necessary by Brexit.
A key post-Brexit challenge for all the UK’s governments is the so-called “governance gap”. At present, the various institutions of the EU (notably the European Environment Agency, the European Commission and the European Court of Justice) undertake a range of environmental policy functions. In their absence, these functions will need to pass to existing or new bodies within Scotland and/or the UK. The Scottish Government has recognised this challenge, and sought advice from a sub-group of its Round Table on Environment and Climate Change. A consultation paper on possible ways forward is expected imminently.
These matters interrelate, however, as a key part of any right to a clean and healthy environment is the right for citizens, communities and NGOs to challenge decision-makers in relation to matters that may undermine the enjoyment of that right – or may be contrary to legislation that seeks to give it effect.
At present, the European Commission’s complaint procedure is one affordable and accessible mechanism by which citizens, communities and NGOs can raise concerns. By contrast, domestic procedures such a Judicial Review are costly and usually cannot address the merits of the issue. This underlines the importance of the Advisory Group’s recommendation that the implementation of the right must include access to justice – with reference to international standards such as the Aarhus Convention and the UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. Present arrangements have been shown to be contrary to the Aarhus Conventions requirements.
LINK members therefore see the forthcoming Scottish Government consultation on post-Brexit governance and the proposed new environmental right as intrinsically linked. They both contribute to a better Scotland, where our environment is protected and enhanced, and is recognised as underpinning our own health and wellbeing. It is essential also that the engagement, participation and rights of citizens, communities and NGOs in environmental matters is both recognised and enhanced. Unless the latter is delivered, we cannot be the ‘international leaders’ that the First Minister aspires to be.
So, as we enter 2019 (and possibly the likely outcome of the Brexit debates become clearer), where now?
First, LINK members look forward to working with the First Minister’s new taskforce on human rights implementation.
Secondly, we also look forward to seeing and responding to the Scottish Government’s consultation on (post-Brexit) EU environment principles and governance.
Thirdly, however, we must implement these measures with a clear vision of the importance of the environment, clear ambition for its protection and conservation and determination to deliver these outcomes. This is why LINK has welcomed the Scottish Government’s development of a long-term strategy for the environment – and debates relating to post-2020 ambitions for climate change and biodiversity.
But, consultations, discussions and strategies are insufficient. There is a clear need to underpin this all in a Scottish Environment Act – this is the key aim of the LINK members’ campaign to “Fight for Scotland’s Nature”. Such an Act should set clear ambitions, require actions to deliver those ambitions, underpinned by the EU environmental principles and supported by new governance mechanisms – including the implementation of the new environmental rights.
By Lloyd Austin, Convener of LINK’s Governance Group