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Scotland to enshrine UN Convention on Children’s Rights into law

Humanists UK has welcomed the news that the Scottish Government will put the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) directly into enforceable legislation before the May 2021 elections.

A plan to strengthen children’s rights in Scotland by ‘[incorporating] the Convention into law to the maximum extent possible within the powers of the Scottish Parliament’ was initially unveiled in November 2019. Now, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that a Bill making the necessary changes will be introduced before the end of the parliamentary term next year.

The European Convention on Human Rights is enforceable in UK law through the Human Rights Act 1998. But UN treaties are not enforceable in domestic courts, meaning that although the UK has signed up to the treaties, some of the provisions they contain are not legal protections that citizens can actually access. This gap between international and domestically enforceable law is most significant with respect to the UNCRC and its specific provisions for children. These include the right to education, and the child’s own right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is distinct from that of their parents.

Scotland and Wales have previously passed legislation requiring ministers to have regard to the UNCRC when making policy, and in England the Children’s Commissioner is required to have regard to and monitor the implementation of the Convention. But Scotland will be the first country in the UK to make it fully legally enforceable. This is despite the fact that full incorporation has been specifically recommended by the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Children’s Commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and is a step that has been taken by many other countries already.

Humanists UK’s sister charity, Humanist Society Scotland, has been part of the campaign that led to this change.

Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland commented:

‘We believe that human rights are something that you are born with, not something that is earned with age, and the incorporation of the UNCRC into Scots law is essential if we want to create a Scotland that values its citizens at every age and stage in life. We are keen to see the Bill trigger a long overdue shift in Scotland’s public schools that would end the compulsory attendance of pupils at Religious Observance sessions. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted in 2016 that the current system that doesn’t allow pupils to opt out of religious observance was not in keeping with Convention Rights. We hope that this is rectified as swiftly as possible after the Incorporation Bill is passed.’

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘By making the UNCRC directly legally enforceable, this Bill represents a laudable step in realising the rights of children and young people across Scotland.

‘Sadly, progress in this area has not been so positive elsewhere in the UK. And, all too often, the rights of children are treated as an afterthought or as secondary to those of their parents. This is particularly the case with respect to freedom of religion or belief, with children subject to practices such as compulsory collective worship and religious instruction irrespective of their own developing views on the matter.

‘Regardless of where they live, children should be entitled to the same fundamental rights and to have their best interests protected. We therefore call on the governments of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland to follow Scotland’s lead by incorporating the UNCRC across the UK.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager at or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.

Read our most recent article on children’s rights in Wales.

Read more about our work on strengthening children’s rights.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.

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