What is a Human Rights Cities?

A Human Rights City may be defined as a municipality that has adopted human rights principles and laws, as guiding norms of governance. In practise, it provides for an inclusive civic engagement with city management, where people have the power to decide on policy proposals and politicians assume the role of policy implementers, hence fostering participatory democracy with solidarity and social justice. Such a commitment translates locally into an improvement in the quality of life of all residents.

In 2011, the 1st World Human Rights Cities Forum of Gwangju, in South Korea, defined Human Rights Cities as “both a local community and a socio-political process in a local context where human rights play a key role as fundamental values and guiding principles”.

Since 1997, human rights cities have gradually developed in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States, following the declaration by the city of Rosario, Argentina, of the world’s first human rights city.

At present, eight cities are officially self-declared human rights cities within the European Union territory: Graz, Salzburg and Vienna in Austria; York in the United Kingdom; Barcelona in Spain, Utrecht and Middelburg in the Netherlands, and Lund in Sweden.

In the cases of these cities, each process has been tailor-made, is context specific and based on individual commitments.

There is a diversity of approaches to human rights cities, but no harmonised commitment framework. Therefore, there is a lack of enforcement of the commitments and a deficiency in accountability mechanisms. At present, there is neither formal accreditation nor European or international minimum standards framing the development of human rights cities.

While the process varies from one city to another, two broad categories can be distinguished:

  • An informal process where cities advance the human rights movement at local government level, often based on a specific human right and without formally declaring it as such. These cities are showcased through a variety of concepts such as “sustainable cities”, “green cities”, “rainbow cities”, “smart cities”, or “refugee cities”. Even if there is a great diversity of models within this category, they are not necessarily comparable, nor are there guarantees of a real commitment, translated locally, into an improvement in the quality of life of residents.
  • A formal process where cities officially proclaim themselves a Human Rights City, on the basis of a formal commitment, usually a declaration, that serves as a reference for political action and accountability. Although the processes may differ considerably, in this case, the commitment to being a human rights city is generally translated into better local governance, addressing urban challenges related to fundamental rights more efficiently, with greater direct citizen participation. Thus, an officially designated human rights city is essentially distinguished by two aspects: the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as norms of governance, often combined with other human rights conventions; and the establishment of a socio-political process where the community and the municipality (usually represented by a governing body) cooperate to integrate the fundamental values ​​as a priority in the planning and governance of the city.

Yet, different degrees of commitment and responsibility exist among human rights cities, which may vary from the declaration of intention to the effective implementation of a process where residents’ political, economic, social and cultural rights are at the centre of the city’s governance and public policies.

Why a Human Rights City?

  • Create links between human rights and sustainable development goals at local level. This is based on key principles encompassing equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, transparency and accountability. The city improves its governance by mobilising human rights values, to guide priority choices. Thus, the fundamental principles contribute to effectively localise the implementation of the main SDGs (including education, health, housing, water and sanitation, gender equality and employment, among others), beyond SDG 11 calling cities and communities to be “open to all, safe, resilient and sustainable”.
  • Adopt human rights as a guiding norm of governance. The process involves notably reviewing strategic orientation documents, decision making processes, as well as the definition and implementation of local public policies, in light of international human rights standards and based on a fundamental rights approach.
  • Encourage participatory democracy and social justice in city management. Improve the quality of life of residents through the implementation of a more inclusive and participatory approach. Invite a wide range of social categories to identify fundamental rights in their daily lives and take them into account in the definition and the implementation of local public policies. Capacities, needs and concerns of all actors are thus taken into consideration. Priorities are formalised in an action plan and reflected in intersectoral strategies. More inclusive structures are put in place, promoting equity and solidarity for the benefit of the population. Developing a joint evaluation system is also needed to systematically assess progress and priority areas for improvement. Municipalities can hence better face the economic, social and environmental challenges of their constituencies.
  • Promote a culture of human rights. Use human rights as a foundation, focus on vulnerable groups, put individual rights at the centre of public policies and empower communities to take the lead and challenge the municipality in their responsibilities.
  • Advance refined models and core elements, by promoting the development of human rights cities. Inspire other municipalities to take the step and promote the creation of a thematic or national network of cities such as the European Coalition of Cities against Racism or the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions.
  • Be part of an international network of human rights cities. Locate an international human rights framework to strengthen development cooperation links and create local and international synergies. This allows for access to the Excellence Knowledge Centre, participation in the inter-city dialogue and membership of an interactive community of practice in Europe.

Impact

  • Human rights city knowledge and information are widely disseminated
  • Locally-developed practices are shared among human rights cities practitioners
  • Inter-city dialogue among practitioners make human rights a reality for citizens, demonstrating the potential to enhance networking among like-minded cities
  • Existing human rights cities can pair with new cities, to share their philosophy, methodology and concepts
  • Cities in Europe are being inspired to join the network, expanding the interactive community
  • Interconnection among human rights cities contribute to a refined model, and the advancement of core elements, further enhancing the framework and monitoring tools for human rights cities
  • The development of human rights cities is promoted in Europe and beyond