Azadeh Chalabi: Added Values of National Human Rights Action Planning for the UK in the Age of Brexit

In the age of Brexit when divisions of different kinds (cultural, ethnic, religious, geographical and class, etc.) come into sharp focus, even if the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights can be maintained (with the recent House of Lords amendment to retain the Charter), significant concerns can be raised as to a potential reduction of fundamental rights protection and its likely negative effects on societal integration within the UK and devolved territories. It is therefore crucial for the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations to adopt a more proactive move than merely enacting a bill of rights, offering judicial remedies or advancing top-down and fragmented policies. To take practical-oriented steps to ensure existing human rights are not threatened but rather implemented effectively, and to increase the level of societal integration, the UK needs to put in place an effective National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) designed and implemented in line with the modern concept of planning.

The idea of adopting a NHRAP dates back to the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and then was included in other human rights conventions. In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action likewise urged each state to develop a national action plan for implementing human rights. Since then many countries such as Australia, China, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Iraq, Spain, South Korea, South Africa and Sweden have developed one or more NHRAPs, though most plans are based on the traditional concept of planning which is theory-neutral, state-centric and top-down. As the results of my cross-case analysis of NHRAPs of 53 countries indicate, traditional planning which is still predominant in international human rights law has caused significant problems in different phases of planning such as ideological orientation, non-correspondence, supporting the status quo, lack of transparency and lack of accountability mechanism. Moreover, traditional planning as a mirror image of central planning of the former Soviet Union where a life plan was imposed upon people from the top down sometimes discourages political elites to adopt a NHRAP and intensify the lack of political will to use planning for implementing human rights.

All this requires a strategic shift towards the modern concept of human rights planning which is participatory, multi-layered and top-down bottom-up, and can serve at least seven purposes for the post-Brexit UK:

  1. Modern human rights action planning seeks to ensure that areas of social policy such as education, health, poverty, and social security are framed through the lens of human rights and that various national policies are in line with human rights-based approach to development (see Chalabi 2014). The UK development interventions are mainly focused on market and economic objectives. The fact of the matter however is that market mechanism alone suffers significant deficiencies such as the problem of the ‘Matthew effect’ that is advantage begets more advantage. Instead of trickling down, findings have revealed that over ‘the last 25 years, income and wealth are being sucked upwards as the richest 1% have gained more income than the bottom 50% put together’ (Oxfam 2017). A human rights-based economy can not only address these deficits but also improve economic growth.
  2. In modern human rights planning, process is as important as the result achieved. It is based on an acknowledgment of equal standing for all stakeholders as genuine participants in decision making at different levels and in all phases of planning, from preparatory phase to assessment phase. Participation as an integral part of planning is much more than informing or consulting stakeholders but rather an active engagement of citizens as ‘shapers’ (and not only ‘users’ of interventions designed by others).
  3. National human rights action planning is a common endeavour around which all sectors of society can be united. It is meant to establish a national human rights network of all stakeholders, governmental and non-governmental, opening up communication among them at all levels of plan operations. A NHRAP can therefore build bridges across potential divides and stitch together the fraying social fabric.
  4. Modern human rights action planning is a top-down bottom-up approach. It is informed by both expert knowledge of human rights standards and scientific and technical understanding of different causal mechanisms which are at work (from the top-down) and detailed local knowledge of human rights issues (from the bottom-up).
  5. A NHRAP is an effective mechanism to systematically and comprehensively address human rights challenges ensuring that nothing falls between the cracks. An action plan developed through a national human rights network in cooperation with devolved governments can act as a common framework to ensure policy consistency and cooperation in human rights-related areas. It can efficiently mobilize a wide range of people and organizations in support of human rights, help to strengthen existing human rights institutions and NGOs and if necessary establish further issue-specific human rights bodies.
  6. Developing a NHRAP can play a key role in promoting public awareness and understanding of human rights not only among people and communities but also among those whose actions are particularly critical, such as police, security forces, judges, prison staff and politicians as well as local government officials.
  7. NHRAPs can be used as a vehicle for enhancing human rights accountability. It can offer systematic and comprehensive guidance to governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the UK and devolved government officials, NGOs, professional groups and human rights commissions regarding the tasks that need to be accomplished to effectively implement human rights. Modern human rights action planning offers at least six types of accountability mechanisms, each of which can serve different purposes in ensuring fundamental rights protection in country. These six types can be paired into three categories: (1) process and result accountability mechanisms; (2) internal and external accountability mechanisms; and (3) vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms.

The process of adopting a human rights action plan depends largely on the specific circumstances of each society. In the context of the United Kingdom’s overall structure, human rights action planning can come in different forms. Apart from a national human rights action plan for the whole UK, each devolved government can advance a context-specific human rights action plan. The United Kingdom has not adopted any comprehensive national human rights action plan as recommended in the Vienna Declaration for the whole UK. Yet, the devolved government of Scotland developed the only human rights action plan (SNAP) in the country. The Scottish model was based on the establishment of a Drafting Group involving a wide range of organisations and individuals from different parts of society including, but not limited to, Amnesty International UK and Scottish government while the Scottish Human Rights commission took the main organizational responsibility. This has been a very positive step forward though the same as many other plans it needs to be improved in its next update by getting closer to the modern concept of planning and including clear monitoring and accountability mechanisms, more specific timetable, lead bodies and performance indicators.

The Scottish model seems to be applicable in the case of Northern Ireland and Wales. More importantly, in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland in the age of Brexit, what is just as important as a Bill of Rights is adopting an effective human rights action plan. Although enacting a Bill of Rights or human rights Act, as arose from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, can be and indeed is vital to ensure there is no reduction of rights as a result of Brexit, an Act, in any form, can at best play a part. By its nature, it is not well suited to ensuring the proactive and progressive implementation of rights in particular economic, social and cultural rights but rather it is on the whole episodic and reactive, if not expensive as well. For a Bill to be implemented effectively, it has to be accompanied by realistic and periodic human rights action plans which can not only provide strategic directions to secure the Good Friday Agreement but also improve active social consensus, trust and cooperation among heterogeneous groups promoting social integration in an inclusive environment of tolerance and paving the way for human rights-based development.

Azadeh Chalabi is a lecturer in Law at School of Law and Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University. 

(Suggested citation: A. Chalabi, ‘Added Values of National Human Rights Action Planning for the UK in the Age of Brexit’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (30th Apr. 2018) (available at