Scottish Parliament election reaction

Scotland’s Approach to Human Rights and Foreign Policy

Published: 20 May 2021

As the dust settles on the Scottish elections, Kurt Mills, Andrea Birdsall and Naomi McAuliffe reflect on the manifesto commitments the parties made to external relations and human rights. They expect to see a progressive and engaged Scotland that supports human rights domestically and internationally, even if the key fault line of independence continues to divide the population.

Under devolution, foreign policy is a matter reserved to the UK parliament and government. But, like many devolved and regional governments, the Scottish government has developed its own external relations. Harnessing its soft power, it has contributed to shaping foreign policy agendas and shown leadership in the area of human rights. The 2019 National Taskforce on Human Rights Leadership set out Scotland’s human rights framework. These activities have become more important in a post-Brexit world in which the Scottish government seeks to carve out a place for Scotland in international relations.

We explored questions of Scotland’s foreign policy and the role of human rights in a series of workshops, supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. These brought together politicians, practitioners, NGOs, and members of academia to map the terrain of Scotland’s external relations and identify priorities for the integration of human rights into Scotland’s external relations. In this blog, we review the parties’ manifesto commitments to an active foreign policy which includes the promotion of human rights.

The SNP sees developing an international persona as a key part of its plans for independence. Its manifesto underlined its ambitions for Scotland to be ‘a leader in human rights’. This comes through in both domestic and international policies. The Scottish Parliament recently gave unanimous support to legislation incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law (the legislation has been referred to the Supreme Court by the UK government in a test of devolution competence). In its manifesto, the SNP gave further commitment to incorporating four more UN human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. This indicates a substantial commitment to economic and social rights, not just civil and political rights. Examples include a ‘fundamental’ right to food and embedding ‘equality and human rights in our education’. It sends a signal that Scotland will continue to support and expand human rights protections even as the government in Westminster has signaled an intent to weaken such protections.

The SNP asserts that ‘Scotland is a welcoming and inclusive nation’ and that when independent it will create an asylum and immigration system ‘founded on fairness and human rights.’ It committed to creating Scottish Cities of Refuge to ensure that ‘Scotland is a welcoming place for writers and artists fleeing violence and persecution.’ This is in line with other concrete efforts it has supported in recent years, including the Scottish Human Rights Defenders Fellowship.

The SNP’s opposition to Brexit has reinvigorated independence demands and shaped its foreign policy. The manifesto pledged to rejoin the European Union at the earliest opportunity after independence. Within the context of devolution, it is committed to setting up an Institute for Peacekeeping and a Scottish Council for Global Affairs to ‘develop critical thinking on international issues and Scotland’s place in the world.’ The manifesto outlined the SNP’s ambition to show leadership as a ‘global good citizen’ to ‘promote our values, such as human rights.’ This is reflected in promises to increase Scotland’s international development fund, continue support for the Humanitarian Emergency Fund, and establish an International Development Women and Girls Empowerment Fund. It also set out ambitions to be ‘the first country in the UK, joining a small number of countries across the world, to adopt a feminist foreign policy’ (FFP). If the experiences of those other countries are anything to go by, this will require a long-term project focused on transforming existing power structures, making gender equality the very core of the system. The SNP will need to move beyond using FFP as a ‘brand’ that generates interest and develop a coherent policy that is transformative, rights-based and non-partisan.

Yet, all of this adds up to a strong, positive vision of an active, progressive Scotland playing an outsized role on the international stage, in particular in the areas of peacemaking, development, and human rights. As a minority government, the SNP government will have to work with other parties across the parliament when implementing its foreign policy agenda.

In this, as in other many policy spheres, the SNP government is likely to find support from the Scottish Greens. The party is committed to Scotland developing a ‘more active role in the international community’. Its manifesto pledged to introduce human rights legislation ‘to enshrine fundamental rights, including the right to a healthy and safe environment.’ The Greens also have more far-reaching commitments, including ending support for the arms industry, increasing support for oppressed people in specific countries, and addressing human rights issues associated with concerns over China’s influence through the ‘Confucius Classroom.’ The Rainbow Greens network also underlines a commitment to a ‘progressive and inclusive Scotland,’ with a focus on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) rights via enshrining the Yogyagarta Principles in Scots law.

Not surprisingly, then, the two parties committed to independence have active foreign policies supporting human rights both domestically and internationally as a key element of Scottish identity. The three parties that are opposed to independence have – perhaps unsurprisingly – less to say about Scotland’s external relations.

The Conservative manifesto briefly mentioned its plans for delivering foreign aid and touched on human rights only once (in relation to disabilities). The Labour and the Liberal Democrat manifestos mentioned external relations more frequently, but mainly related to their support for the Scottish Council of Global Affairs. Both parties highlighted Scotland’s role in promoting human rights, primarily focused on establishing international human rights standards in Scottish legislation. Labour’s stance on Scotland’s independent external relations is underlined by a reminder that: ‘While Scotland does not have its own foreign policy, it has an important role in a range of international issues, including human rights, migration and refugees, global public health, and climate change.’ The Liberal Democrats suggested that Scotland has ‘an important place in promoting global issues such as human rights, migration and refugees, public health and the climate emergency.’

If Scotland is to play an important role internationally, it almost by definition will have a foreign policy. Diplomatic relations are a reserved to Westminster. Yet, although politically the presence of foreign policy may be denied, from an academic perspective, it has been recognised for decades that sub-state political entities, like Scotland, engage in activities which amount to foreign policy engagement, sometimes referred to as paradiplomacy.

The main takeaway from the manifestos and the outcome of the election more generally is that there seems to be majority political support for a progressive and engaged Scotland which supports human rights domestically and internationally, even if the key fault line of independence continues to divide the population. Despite constitutional limits on international diplomacy, the new government has ambitious plans for vigorous international engagement, and human rights form a core part of this strategy.


Kurt Mills, University of Dundee
Andrea Birdsall, University of Edinburgh
Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International Scotland

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