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Rally condemns 42-day rule

Sunday Herald 22 June 2008

HUNDREDS OF protesters marked the 60th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights by marching through Glasgow yesterday.

Kelvingrove Park provided the venue for the Every Human Has Rights campaign as leading activists took to the stage to condemn the UK government's recent vote to detain suspects for up to 42 days without charge, the war in Iraq, and CIA rendition flights.

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the crowd that "human rights were for people and not governments"

She later told the Sunday Herald that people should appreciate that human rights issues are not exclusively for developing countries.

"We have to look at issues here, too, in the treatment of people in mental health services, areas of discrimination against the disabled, against gender, and we need to protect the human rights of immigrants and those who are in detention centres across the country," she said.

The ruling on 42 days was "unjustified", she said, as 28 days' detention without charge was already too long. Robinson said she was fearful that "police will get sloppy and the authorities will be in no hurry to charge a suspect, and then in the last few days running up to the 42-day deadline, they'll get busy."

When asked if she supported David Davis MP, who stood down from the Tory front bench over the 42-day row, Robinson said: "People reward those who make a principled stand."

PROTESTERS inside a metal cage at the side of the stage were dressed in Guantanamo Bay-style orange jumpsuits to symbolise the current threats to civil liberties.

Yesterday's rally was the culmination of a week-long world assembly of Civicus, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, which Glasgow hosted for the third time. There was a warm welcome for the new Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC), headed by Professor Alan Miller.

He said there had been "frustration" at the length of time it has taken to establish a commission which was first mooted nearly 10 years ago. It will be fully operational in the autumn, will employ 11 staff and have an annual budget of £1 million from the Scottish government.

Miller said: "The commission will be the link between the United Nations, the obligations the UK has signed up to and the reality on the ground. We will report where the gaps are to the UN so that the UK can be held more to account in the UN human rights system, for example, over the alleged use of extraordinary rendition flights in the UK."

The SHRC will also undertake the first independent mapping of human rights in Scotland, which will provide evidence of good practice and where there are discrepancies. In the meantime, Miller said the commission "will not be sitting on our hands".

The SHRC has planned initiatives to look at the conditions of older people living in institutional care, the experience of users of mental health services, and issues affecting survivors of historic child abuse.

Miller also hopes the commission will be able to ensure that the issue of rendition flights for terror suspects "is taken more seriously at all levels of duty".

Not since December 2005 has Scotland had a dedicated body focused on human rights, after the Scottish Human Rights Centre folded due to bankruptcy. Since then, say campaigners, Scotland has fallen behind on human rights issues.

John Watson, director of Amnesty International Scotland, said: "There has been a gap for some time. I think we have been falling behind, we are missing a trick by way of having an organisation which can identify the problems in this country."

Watson specifically picked out quangos as organisations where urgent focus was needed.

"A big gap has been in monitoring the performanceofpublicbodiesin Scotland. We did a survey a while ago where we asked public bodies for their human rights policy, which they are all under obligation to have. Only a third of them were able to come up with something and in most of those cases the policy was quite dated. In several cases the policies were on the shelf and not a live document.

"There is a real gap in the way our public bodies are looking after the public they serve," he added.

Human rights lawyer and former chairman of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, John Scott, agreed.

"We have definitely fallen behind other countries," he told the Sunday Herald. "Without that voice it's too easy to overlook or ignore important human rights issues. It's been more haphazard.

"The responsibility has in recent years fallen to lawyers like myself and Aamer Anwar, whereas really it should have been the commission," he added.

Scott said he was "very hopeful" that the new commission would improve human rights in Scotland, but warned there were "limitations" in the remit which could hinder progress.

The commission can only address issues that are devolved to Holyrood, while the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) in Scotland will deal with those which are reserved to Westminster.