Urbanization is on the rise. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than half of the world’s population lives in towns or cities. By 2030, that number could reach 5 billion people. This is significant because inequality often slices cities into divisions of wealth and poverty. A human rights approach can address this problem and promote cities as spaces of equality, inclusion, and empowerment. When different stakeholders in a city – the local government, civil society, and private sector – come together to adopt human rights principles and laws, a human rights city is born.
The history of human rights cities
The impact of cities on human rights is not new considering how cities can be home to high levels of poverty, inequality, environmental decay, and so on. The organization the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning (formerly known as the People’s Decade for Human Rights Education and still known by the abbreviation PDHRE) launched the more formal understanding of human rights cities. It was just after the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria, which represented a reinvigorated commitment to implement human rights instruments. The PDHRE’S Human Rights Cities initiative sought to mobilize communities to engage in dialogue and take action on improving life and security for people based on a human rights standard.
The first Human Rights City
Rosario is the biggest city in the central Argentinian province of Sante Fe and the third-most populous city in the country. Tourists are drawn to its centuries-old architecture in the neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco styles, as well as its many museums. Football legend Lionel Messi is from Rosario. In June of 1997, more than 100 people, including groups representing women, children, the academic community, and indigenous people, met with the municipality at City Hall. The executive director of PDHRE was there, too. The groups signed a proclamation committing to turn Rosario into a “human rights sensitive city” that would promote equity, peace, and respect for human rights.
Rosario drew up plans to implement the proclamation. All sectors of society were represented on a Citizen’s Committee, which began analyzing how human rights violations were connected and initiating neighborhood dialogues about a human rights framework. A sub-committee looked at the government’s obligations under international law and solutions to poverty, violence against women and the LGBTQ community, police brutality, poor education, and more. Human rights experts, educators, lawyers, and media members made a supporting volunteer group while trainings were held for and by police, judges, business people, teachers, and others. Specific principles guided the process: transparency, participation, accountability, reciprocity, and a commitment to eliminate poverty.
Other Human Rights Cities
Other areas embraced the concept of human rights cities. In 2000, Saint-Denis in France adopted the European Charter for the Safe Guarding of Human Rights in the City. In 2009, Gwangju in South Korea established a human rights municipality and in 2011, held the 1st World Human Rights Cities Forum. The event is held annually and is an essential gathering for the human rights cities movement. The forum 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.”
There are currently human rights cities in Asia, Africa, Europe, Canada, the United States, and Latin America. Examples include Timbuktu, Mali; Nagpur, India; Nuremberg, Germany; Madrid, Spain; Seattle, United States; and Winnipeg, Canada.
How do cities become “human rights cities?”
There is no standardized process for a city to become a “human rights city.” According to the Human Rights Cities Network, an online platform that promotes the development of human rights cities, there are two processes: an informal one and a formal one. The informal process is when a city promotes human rights at a local government level without officially labeling itself a “human rights city.” These cities embrace concepts like sustainability (“going green”), welcoming refugees, being inclusive to all genders and sexualities, and so on. The success of these cities varies widely; cities often make big promises they don’t keep. Some cities have embraced human rights agendas and implemented norms, but haven’t adopted broader declarations. Chicago, Illinois is one example. The City Council passed a resolution in 2009 supporting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For the formal process, a city announces itself as a “Human Rights City” and makes an official commitment. They often adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as their norm of governance and establish a process where the community and municipality cooperate on implementing a human rights approach. Implementing a specific human rights framework for governance sets true human rights cities apart from cities that enjoy a human rights label, but aren’t going to take real action. Every city’s process looks a bit different based on relevant issues, government structure, and so on. The key is that policies and governance center residents’ human rights as described in the UDHR.
The benefits of human rights cities
When taken seriously, human rights cities rely on a framework based on human rights principles like equality, participation, transparency, and accountability. This framework is essential because it guides decision-making on every level, ensuring a systemic shift in how cities conduct business. We can see these principles in the Gwangju Guiding Principles for a Human Rights City (2014):
- Non-discrimination and affirmative action
- Social inclusion and cultural diversity
- Social justice, solidarity, and sustainability
- Effective institutions and policy coordination
- Human rights education and training
- Participatory democracy and accountable governance
Let’s consider that last principle more closely: participatory democracy and accountable governance. Democracy, which is a structure that gives power to the people either directly or through elected representatives, creates the best environment for human rights to flourish. Why? Governance guided by a democratic human rights approach doesn’t allow an elite group to call the shots with no participation or accountability from the rest of the community. All city residents – not just a few – are involved in public policy-making and given the space to voice their interests and ideas. If the government fails in its responsibilities, mechanisms allow people to hold them accountable and prioritize (and empower) the most vulnerable. That’s an essential benefit to human rights cities.
Challenges that face human rights cities
Enforcing a human rights approach is arguably the biggest challenge facing human rights cities. It’s a problem consistent with human rights law and practice in general. While the United Nations represents the closest thing to a global enforcer, its powers are severely limited. The institution can draw attention to human rights progress and violations, but its ability to hold States and abusers accountable has earned the UN much criticism. There’s even less oversight of private actors like multinational corporations. Most enforcement falls to individual States and local governments, which often have scant resources or weak political will for strong human rights policies.
The lack of a standardized definition for human rights cities (an issue that Deklerck Jasmien discusses in their thesis Human Rights Cities: “Walking the Walk” or “Talking the Talk”) also makes enforcement a very tricky prospect. There aren’t clear measurements that determine whether human cities are successful. These limitations make it difficult to hold human rights cities responsible for their actions (or lack of actions) regarding human rights. This isn’t to say all human rights cities are doomed to fail. Some cities are better than others at establishing monitoring procedures and enforcement mechanisms, but again, without a clear definition and recognized standards, human rights cities won’t achieve the level of success supporters hope for.
Are human rights cities worth it?
While the values behind human rights cities aren’t new, the implementation is fairly recent. Is it worth the effort? Are the cities working? Let’s look at the city of Gwangju for a case study. Gwangju, South Korea has a history of oppressive governments. In 1980, government troops attacked university students demonstrating against the martial law government. A group of citizens armed themselves in what became known as the Gwangju Uprising. The event is recognized as a symbol of resistance against authoritarianism. Given the area’s history and track record of democratic movements, making Gwangju a human rights city made sense to many progressive residents. Human rights ordinances were established in 2007 and 2009. In 2010, the government established a human rights department. In 2011, the first World Human Rights Cities Forum took place.
According to a 2019 conference paper, human rights indicators show a steady improvement in the city’s human rights levels. Achievements in human rights education (which includes HRE for all government officials) are considered the city’s biggest wins. Issues remain, especially in housing, public safety, and school violence. The paper also points out problems with collaboration between the government’s different departments.
Gwangju has a blend of successes and limitations. That’s likely true for all human rights cities. Is the idea of the “human rights city” worth attempting? It is if it’s taken seriously. Human rights principles like democracy and accountability are essential to the long-term health and success of cities, which are home to billions. The Sustainable Development Goals can’t be achieved without cities, but cities first need to embrace a human rights approach.