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Improving health
Previously NHS Health Scotland

Today is the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This came three years after the end of the Second World War, and of course the same year the NHS was established. At its most basic, the UN declaration of Human Rights set a level below which no person could hold power over another.  

Human rights matter to me for two reasons.

The first is that they don’t just set a floor below which human behaviour should not fall (important as that is). They also describe a compelling vision of how civil society should be. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights require states not just to protect their citizen’s rights, but also to fulfil human aspirations for fairness, equality and potential. And this resonates closely with our organisation’s aspirations for a fairer healthier society.

I got into human rights because of our work on health inequalities. I was already leading this organisation’s work on equality and diversity. We struggled sometimes to connect and help others to connect that work with our new direction of travel to focus on health inequalities. As I began to get involved with the new Scottish Human Rights Commission 10 years ago, I kept going back to how closely attune human rights were with the vision that we were describing in our strategy, A Fairer Healthier Scotland. I found rights to fully embrace the ideas of fairness and equity that we were trying to drive.

But the second reason that human rights matter to me is that they are not just visionary or conceptual. They are ours, by virtue of law.

That’s really important because I sometimes hear human rights described as values. Good values are good things. But to some extent we can choose or change our values. We can certainly choose the kind of values we associate with.

We cannot pick and choose rights. We are born and we die with them. The people we interact with at work, at home, everywhere – have the same rights.

We have a right to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of anyone else’s personal values. We also have a right to food. We have a right to good work. We have a right to live with a roof over our head and in conditions that keep us healthy and support our wellbeing.

It’s just that many people’s rights are breached through their lifetime. And that’s not just in war-torn parts of the world. The fact that food poverty exists, that in-work poverty is rising faster than employment, that 34,972 homelessness applications were made in Scotland last year, that health inequalities exist, show that not everyone in Scotland is enjoying their rights equally.  

And I believe very strongly that using the language of rights and a rights-based approach will help. Just take a look at the fantastic example of the Edinburgh Tenants Association. Only after starting to use the language of rights did they get the improvements in a dilapidated block of flats they had been asking for, for years. And their health and wellbeing is getting better as a result.

This is why I see no better way to frame our work to give everyone in Scotland the opportunity and access to the things they need to live longer, healthier lives. And this is why I am so pleased that our Board and our organisation have embraced the right to health in A Fairer Healthier Scotland.

It is also why I believe so strongly that the right to health is a critical part of public health in the future and why we should use this unique opportunity to put human rights at the heart of our new organisation.

Today, I’m inviting you to take a piece of the action in celebrating human rights. Look about you, and imagine a life without rights, particularly the ones many of us take for granted. Then talk to colleagues or friends over coffee about it.

Happy International Human Rights Day.

For more information on the International Covenants on Civil & Political Rights and Economic, Cultural & Social Rights, visit the Scottish Human Rights Commission website [external website].

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