This post is 2 of 2 by Dr Kasey McCall-Smith examining the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. This post highlights how stronger interpretive tools could strengthen the Bill and deliver a brighter future for children in Scotland. Dr McCall-Smith serves on the Expert Advisory Group on UNCRC Incorporation convened by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights (Together). @KMSonIntlLaw
In a previous post I presented some of the key triumphs of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill (Incorporation Bill) that is currently before Scottish Parliament. This post suggests some ways in which the current Bill could be strengthened in terms of the interpretation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) rights incorporated through Schedule 1 of the Bill. Expanding the interpretive scope further would better support the progressive realisation of children’s rights, shore up protection for children with intersectional vulnerabilities and ensure that Scotland becomes ‘the best place in the world to grow up’.
Match the Interpretive Tools Available to the Courts With Those of Scottish Ministers
One of the clearest ways in which the Scottish Parliament could strengthen the Incorporation Bill is to further enhance the interpretive tools available to courts when determining a question in connection with the UNCRC. At present, section 4 of the Bill outlines the ‘things’ that courts or tribunals ‘may take into account’ as: (1) the preamble of the UNCRC; (2) the articles directly incorporated through Schedule 1 of the Bill; and (3) provisions of the UNCRC and the articles that are not included in Schedule 1. The glaring gap is the failure to include the interpretive opinions or instruments of the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that oversees the international implementation of the Convention. These opinions/instruments include Concluding Observations on UK periodic reports, Final Views (on individual communications), General Comments and reports on general discussion days – in which the UK and Scotland have actively participated in both government and civil society capacities. Including these as interpretive reference tools is important in order to keep on top of international developments in children’s rights, progressively realise UNCRC rights and to ensure that interpretations in Scotland track the specific advice of the CRC in terms of its engagement with the collective UK and broader international community. Notably, if the UK were to ratify the Third Optional Protocol on an Individual Communications Procedure (addressed in s5), that process would generate further instructive opinions on the implementation of children’s rights in the UK that should, arguably, be a strong push factor for the UK.
The omission in section 4 of the Bill is intentional considering that Part 3 of the Bill brings these instruments in for the purposes of Scottish Ministers making, amending and remaking a Children’s Rights Scheme that will document the arrangements put in place to fulfil their duties outlined in the Bill. Section 12(2)(a) details that
(2) In preparing the proposal, the Scottish Ministers—
(a) must have regard to
(i) any report of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child under paragraph 5 of article 44 of the Convention that the Scottish Ministers consider to be relevant, and
(ii) any other reports, suggestions, general recommendations or other documents issued by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child relating to the implementation of the Convention, the first optional protocol or the second optional protocol by the United Kingdom that the Scottish Ministers consider to be relevant, …
Though UNCRC Article 44(5) only make specific reference to the periodic reporting process, further practices, such as issuing general comments and holding days of discussion, has become a regular practice of the CRC and a key way in which the Committee can assess the most current information on children’s rights implementation. Section 12(2)(a)(ii) appears to accommodate the variable modalities of interpretation generated by the Committee but the granular reference to suggestions or general recommendations under UNCRC Article 45(d) implies that the same tools of interpretation are not available to the courts. The variable reference to the use of treaty body jurisprudence as an interpretive tool is further complicated in that General Comments are specified as a tool when reviewing a Children’s Rights Scheme in section 13(2) of the Bill but not expressly included when developing the Scheme under section 12.
While not viewed as binding by most States, the products of the treaty bodies are extremely important resources for interpreting children’s rights and UK courts have increasingly made reference to them when determining legal questions relating to children. Furthermore, general international law recognizes the role of the treaty bodies as the ultimate interpreters of their respective treaties. Clarifying that the treaty body jurisprudence should be included in the judiciary’s interpretation toolkit would help encourage culture change and reinforce the value of international human rights interpretation. Even if under Scots law the judiciary has the power to take anything it deems appropriate into account, if we are going to entrench the UNCRC in Scotland, there must be a tether to the jurisprudence of the CRC Committee.
Maximizing the Availability of Interpretive Tools
To be even more effective, the interpretive tools should be expanded to include relevant resources from other treaty bodies, such as the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that oversees the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In cases where interference with children’s rights involves the intersection of various identities, cross-referencing across the treaties is the best way to ensure the highest attention to the individual’s needs. The recent experience of the right to education during the Covid-19 pandemic illustrates the value in maximizing the sources available in the interpretive toolkit.
During the UK lockdown one of the most common complaints was the breach of the right to education for children. Children with disabilities or socio-economic vulnerabilities or both were particularly impacted by the closure of the schools. While the Committee on the Rights of the Child has issued guidance on implementing the right to education (now rather dated), both the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Committee on Racial Discrimination have provided far greater guidance in how to address the right to education for children that often suffer inequality due to their intersectional identities. To construct a minimum core to the right to education and offer guidance on how to deliver that under normal and extraordinary circumstances, such as those created during the pandemic, it is incumbent on decision makers to canvass the wide range of materials that are available. This does not mean that they must follow the treaty body interpretations to the letter. However, opening up the possible tools to which decision-makers may avail themselves is a clear step forward toward a holistic, human rights based approach to interpreting children’s rights.
Make it Stronger to Make Rights Real
The consistent political rhetoric about adopting the ‘gold standard’ children’s rights through incorporation of the UNCRC is not just about putting the static articles of a 30 year-old treaty into Scots law. It is about recognizing the dynamism and evolution in children’s rights and their capacity to exercise them in the pursuit of creating a stronger, more inclusive society. Effective implementation will require the synthesis of a broad range of law and policy that responds to lived experience. The interpretive tools offered by the UN human rights treaty bodies provides an easy starting point for decision-makers. Explicit reference to these tools across all interpreters of children’s rights under the proposed UNCRC Incorporation Bill would go a long way in ensuring that we make children’s rights real in Scotland.