Research project

Assessing the Human Rights Potential in Scotland’s External Relations

‘Assessing the Human Rights Potential in Scotland’s External Relations’ examines the role human rights play, or could play, in Scotland’s foreign policy.

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Start date

March 2020

Completion date

June 2021



Royal Society of Edinburgh


The goal of this project is to increase understanding of Scotland’s current and potential global engagement with human rights issues and how they might be embedded within Scotland’s increasingly autonomous approach to foreign affairs. Scotland is playing an independent role internationally, and human rights are more and more relevant in all public endeavours. The project has three main aims:

  1. mapping the terrain of Scotland’s external relations to establish a baseline and shared understanding amongst relevant domestic audiences
  2. exploring the current state of, and possibilities for, the influence of Scotland as a sub-state actor in the realm of external relations
  3. establishing priorities for embedding human rights in Scotland’s external relations in the contexts of devolution, Brexit, and potential independence.

The project will bring together academics from different disciplines, human rights practitioners, and policymakers to explore these issues via a series of workshops.

While foreign policy is a reserved matter for Westminster, it is clear that the Scottish government aspires to, and indeed has implemented, an expanding programme of independent external relations. It is not the first sub-state political actor to do so. Indeed, an article published almost 30 year ago in Foreign Affairs entitled ‘California’s Foreign Policy’ highlighted how, as one of the largest economies in the world, the state of California required, and indeed had, foreign relations independent of the US federal government. Since then, there has been increasing recognition that sub-state entities which are not sovereign in the usual meaning of the term still have significant possibilities for engagement beyond their borders. The very fact that Scotland has an External Affairs Directorate and specific policies for bilateral and multilateral engagement – including ‘promoting human rights’ as a ‘good global citizen’ – demonstrates this point forcefully.

We will engage with important academic debates on issues such as small state foreign policy, the role of international law, institutions and norms in enhancing small state prestige and international goals via soft power. We also connect with academic literature on the role of human rights in foreign policy, as well as on non-state actors in foreign policy. The role of strategic narratives is also relevant here, given that Scotland is developing its own ‘narrative’ of itself and how it sees the world. Indeed, Scotland is very self-consciously incorporating human rights expertise and leadership in human rights in the development of its soft power identity as can be seen from such recent domestic and international government initiatives focused on business and human rights, the rights of the child, and women in conflict, as well as incorporating international human rights law directly into its domestic law and support for the Scottish Human Rights Defenders Fellowship based at Dundee.

It could be argued that Scotland is developing an ‘emerging foreign policy’ which to a large extent is under the radar and not well-studied (with one or two exceptions). But given the context of Scotland’s constitutional crossroads, it is vital to further understand these challenges and possibilities. We hope this project will thus contribute not only to thinking in the Scottish context, but also contribute more broadly to the academic literature on sub-state/small state foreign policy.

In the first workshop, we focus on getting an understanding of the broad contours of Scottish external relations or foreign policy. In the second workshop, we place Scotland in comparative perspective and learn from the experience of other similar state and sub-state political actors. In the third workshop, we explore the possible directions for Scotland’s external relations, in particular in the context of human rights. We note that while the focus of the project is the outward facing elements of Scotland’s policies, there can be a false dichotomy between the domestic and the international, and that Scotland’s domestic positions on human rights inform outward facing policy, and vice versa.

Scotland’s unclear constitutional future forms the background for discussions, but we take no position in this project on that preferred future – specifically whether Scotland remains part of the UK or becomes an independent country, and whether, if the latter, it rejoins the European Union. These different scenarios are all very relevant to the discussion and future scope and emphasis of Scotland’s external relations, but regardless, it is difficult to deny that Scotland aspires to a set of external relations that are at least somewhat different from, and independent to, Westminster, with perhaps varying possibilities and degrees of success, and human rights may well be a part of Scotland’s developing external persona.

During the 2020/21 academic year, we are holding 3 knowledge exchange workshops with academics, members of civil society, and government representatives. Summaries of the workshops, which were held under Chatham House rules, will be posted on this page when available.

We thank the Royal Society of Edinburgh for its support for this project.


Recent updates

Workshop 1 Summary (10 September 2020) ­– The State of the Nation’s International Relations and the Role of Human Rights (see 'downloads')

Workshop 2 Summary (22 April 2021) – Foreign Policy and Human Rights: What Can Scotland Learn from Others? (see 'downloads')

Workshop 3 (10 June 2021) – Focus on Scotland’s Future Foreign Policy Priorities (coming soon)


Blog post – Scotland’s Approach to Human Rights and Foreign Policy 


Project lead(s)

Professor Kurt Mills

External team members

Dr. Andrea Birdsall, University of Edinburgh

Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International Scotland


Professor Kurt Mills