"OPERA-tionalizing" rights in Scotland's new social security law

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How can human rights advocacy help design policies that tackle economic inequality and social exclusion? This question was at the heart of a workshop on social security reform co-facilitated by the Scottish Human Rights Commission and CESR in Edinburgh recently.

Historically, the provision of social security in Scotland has been the mandate of the Central Government in London. However, new powers were devolved to the Scottish Government in March 2016, offering an opportunity to develop a distinct approach to the provision of social security in Scotland. At a time when austerity-driven cuts are rolling back welfare protections across the United Kingdom – undermining the rights of persons living in poverty, particularly children, large families, single parents, and persons with disabilities – the need for such an approach is more urgent than ever.

A Social Security Bill was introduced in June 2017 and is currently out for public consultation, so the Commission took the opportunity to bring together stakeholders to assess what a concrete understanding of a rights-based approach to social security should look like in the Scottish context. Although the Scottish Government has committed to taking a rights-based approach to the delivery of the new social security system, the current draft of the bill says relatively little about how this principle translates into practice.

The Commission engaged CESR’s support to use OPERA as a tool for designing a rights-based social security system. OPERA is an analytical framework that groups together the norms underpinning states’ obligations to fulfill economic, social and cultural rights into four dimensions: Outcomes; Policy Efforts; Resources; and Assessment. Those at the Edinburgh meeting – a diverse range of civil society groups, community members with lived experience of poverty, public servants, representatives of parliamentarians, and the Commission’s own staff – used OPERA to get down to the granular work of translating rights into actionable policy proposals.

An evident breakthrough for a number of participants, OPERA helped elucidate how human rights norms could be translated into measurable standards for monitoring the performance of the social security system. In-depth conversations among stakeholders revealed that how we talk about human rights norms has a big influence on how people engage with them. Presenters found that while the international articulation of norms is often compromised by political and legalistic interpretations, norms are not static and they take on precise meaning when they’re contextualized by dialogue and debate among stakeholders. Nurturing civic space was also held up as a fundamental element in securing substantive rights protections as it determines whose voices are heard in the debate.

Highly flexible and adaptable, the OPERA Framework has been applied by CESR in countries as diverse as Angola and Kenya, where it was used to examine failures in provisions for maternal and mental health respectively, and in Egypt and Ireland, where it delivered rights-based critiques of austerity policies in two very different contexts.  CESR has put together a series of short case studies illustrating the versatility of the framework and its application in practice.

OPERA has also been applied by a number of other National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) around the world, including human rights commissions in Malaysia, New Zealand and Palestine, to address concrete issues ranging from access to education for children with disabilities to disaster response and development monitoring.  These initiatives are part of CESR's work with NHRIs across the globe to strengthen their capacity to monitor economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights.  Following the publication of a manual on this topic, Defending Dignity, with the Asia-Pacific Forum of NHRIs, CESR is now working with the Danish Institute for Human Rights on the roll out of a blended learning course being implemented with regional NHRI networks in Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America.  

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