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“Human Rights Cities” – expert meeting

Expert Meeting on human rights cities

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)

Brussels, 28 November 2019


“Human Rights Cities: Theoretical and Practical overview”


Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe

UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)


Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,


First of all, I would like to thank the Fundamental Rights Agency and the EESC Liaison Group for the opportunity to contribute to this expert meeting.


The city as a driving force for human rights


As the concept of Human Rights Cities is gaining traction and initiatives at local and regional level are multiplying, this is a welcome opportunity to take stock of where we are and how we can shape the way forward.

Local governments have a crucial role to play in the protection and promotion of human rights, and this for two main reasons.

First, the international human rights obligations of a State extend to all branches of government - the executive, the legislative and the judicial branch –. All levels of government – national, regional and local – engage the State’s responsibility to protect human rights. So, when the central State becomes a party to an international human rights treaty, this is equally binding on local authorities.

Second, local governments are the closest to the needs and aspirations of the population and are therefore particularly well-positioned to translate international treaties and standards into concrete solutions at local level.


Human Rights Cities: when did it start?


It is in the wake of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna that the notion of “Human Rights City” first appeared. The initial idea, promoted by the Peoples Decade for Human Rights (PDHRE), pointed to a community where human rights would guide all aspects of community life. 

In 1997, hundreds of people gathered in the city of Rosario in Argentina with members of the municipal Council to address violence and social exclusion. They signed a proclamation that embodied their commitment to build a human rights community in Rosario. Thus, the first Human Rights City was born.[1]

Today, eight cities in the European Union officially self-declare as human rights cities: Graz, Salzburg and Vienna in Austria; York in the UK; Barcelona in Spain; Utrecht and Middelburg in the Netherlands; and Lund in Sweden.[2]

In recent years, several international and regional instruments have been created by and for cities. I would like to cite the “European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City” adopted in Saint-Denis in 2000, which was the result of a dialogue between European cities, civil society and human rights experts. Over 400 cities in Europe have signed this Charter.

Then we have the “Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City” which was adopted in 2011 by the World Council of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). Each item in the charter is accompanied by an action plan that outlines concrete steps for local governments.

Another interesting instrument is the “Gwangju Guiding Principles for a Human Rights City” adopted in 2014 at the World Human Rights Cities Forum.

In addition to these instruments, it is also worth mentioning the existence of charters adopted by cities themselves, like the “Charter of Rights and Responsibilities of Montréal” (2006), the “Mexico City Charter for the Right to the City” (2010), the “Gwangju Human Rights Charter”, the “Bandung Charter of a Human Rights City” (2015) and the “Guidelines for Human Rights Cities in Sweden”.


UN Human Rights Office initiatives


The UN Human Rights Office’s engagement with cities and local authorities really got off the ground with the Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in 2016; we participated actively in that process and strongly supported the inclusion of local governments in the discussions.

This conference resulted in the adoption of the New Urban Agenda which, in combination with Sustainable Development Goal 11, provides a roadmap for an urbanization that promotes human rights and leaves no one behind.

It is also at the Habitat III conference that we launched the “SHIFT” initiative, together with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, to reclaim housing as a human right and not as a mere commodity.

Last year, our regional office in Brussels carried out a mapping of promising local initiatives for the right to health for migrants. This field research confirmed the unique role of local authorities as human rights actors. We launched the study as a publication at the UN Human Rights Council session in September.

In June this year, our office organized, in collaboration with the “United Cities and Local Governments” (UCLG), the first consultation between OHCHR, Mayors and representatives of local governments to explore possible areas of collaboration.

This meeting showed that, despite political and financial challenges, local governments are willing and able to put in place public policies and programmes to implement human rights. They are interested in learning from one another and interacting on human rights with their national authorities.

Local governments also expressed a keen interest in engaging with the international human rights mechanisms whose guidance, recommendations and decisions can be of great value to local governments, and with the UN. Conversely, information about local experiences greatly helps us to localize human rights and the Sustainable Development Agenda.

At a time of backlash against human rights, our office is more than ever committed to opening up spaces for dialogue with local governments.

In July this year, our High Commissioner for Human Rights issued the report “Local government and human rights” (A/HRC/42/22). This compilation report documents policies, programmes and good practices adopted by cities all around the world to implement human rights at the local level. It also shows the links between human rights, the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable development Goals.

Interestingly, the report found that human rights cities are better placed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals than cities that ignore human rights when pursuing sustainable development. It also found that while local governments frequently integrate human rights considerations into their daily work, only a small proportion of them worldwide offer dedicated human rights-based programmes or initiatives.

In her recommendations, the High Commissioner has called on central governments to provide information to local government the State’s obligations and to ensure that local authorities are equipped with both financial and non-financial resources to effectively address challenges to the realization of human rights.

It is our hope that the meeting and report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will provide an impetus to local authorities to become increasingly involved in the work of regional and international human rights mechanisms, and in feeding and implementing their recommendations. Specifically, we believe that there is room for more engagement by cities in the Universal Periodic Review, with the treaty bodies and with the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, in particular during country visits.


Moving forward: a framework of commitments


We are here today to reflect on a potential framework of commitments for human rights cities. It is evident that, given the structural and financial particularities of each municipality or region, “a one size fit all” framework may not be suitable.

Therefore, the framework must be sufficiently flexible to adapt to the local needs and context. On the other hand, a human rights city must be sustainable over the long term and independent from electoral cycles.

Let me share some proposals for consideration by the experts, also drawing from the report I just mentioned.

If we are going to devise a framework of commitments, one may wish to distinguish between substantive commitments, process commitments and institutional commitments:

Let me start with three substantive commitments:


  1. The commitment to adhere to international human rights law and standards


As I mentioned at the outset, international human rights obligations bind all levels of government and any exercise of governmental authority. Local authorities should not only implement human rights but also see to the local implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda.

Naturally, it is the central State apparatus that ratifies international treaties and the manner by which these norms are transposed or integrated into national legislation may differ from country to country.

That is why local human rights charters, ordinances or declaration can usefully clarify the position of local governments and their human rights objectives.

It is in this perspective that the Vienna City Council adopted in 2014 a Declaration, called “Vienna-City of Human Rights”, in which it pledged to act as a guardian and defender of human rights by striving to respect, protect, fulfil and be accountable for human rights in all its areas of competence. Other European Human Rights Cities like York in the UK, have made a similar commitment.


  1. The commitment to bring local laws, policies, programmes and practices in compliance with human rights law


Local laws, policies and programmes should be based on human rights norms and standards. Existing laws, policies and programmes should be reviewed through the lens of human rights so as to ensure their compliance with international human rights norms and standards.


  1. The commitment to the broadest possible knowledge of human rights


Local governments should actively seek to equip their local officials and civil servants with a solid understanding of human rights and organize human rights education for the population at large. More effort should be invested in training local officials and administrators on human rights, and on how to incorporate human rights protection into all levels of governance. Developing the capacity of local government staff and inhabitants to understand on human rights is crucial to become a human rights city. Local authorities need to know what the rights of their citizens are. And the inhabitants need to know their own rights in order to be able to claim them. Education and training are therefore important tools to establish a culture of human rights.

How do we make sure that not only the outcomes, but also processes and methodologies at local level are in accordance with human rights? Here, I would like put forward some elements of the human rights-based approach (HRBA) conceptual framework that can guide us.


Process commitments:


  1. The commitment to participation


It is incumbent upon the local government to create an enabling environment for people’s participation in decision-making. Given that an active civil society promotes helps to strengthen the human rights expertise of decision-makers, the dialogue between local government and civil society should be open and ongoing. The guidelines for States on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs (see A/HRC/39/28) can be quite relevant in this regard.


  1. The commitment to transparency and accountability


Human rights cities are committed to transparency and welcome public scrutiny of their decisions. They want to be held accountable and have a complaint mechanism to which people can address their grievances and that provides remedy when rights are violated. Where they do not already exist, such grievance mechanisms could be created in collaboration with the national human rights institution.


  1. The commitment to empowering marginalized groups / “leave no one behind”


The Gwangju guiding principles call on human rights cities to “implement a non-discriminatory policy by including gender-sensitive policies as well as affirmative action to reduce inequality and to empower the marginalized and vulnerable groups including migrants and non-citizens” (Principle 2).


Possible institutional commitments:


  1. Setting up a local human rights institution


Some Human Rights Cities have created institutions that are entirely dedicated to promoting and implementing human rights. For example, the city of Graz created a Human Rights Council composed of 30 members from politics, administration, judiciary, police, the media and civil society. The cities of Vienna and Utrecht created a Human Rights Office and a Local Human Rights Coalition respectively.


  1. Commitment to monitoring and assessment


Finally, in order to assess if local governments’ actions are achieving their human rights objectives, it is important to put in place a monitoring mechanism, benchmarks and quantitative and qualitative result and process indicators to measure success. Such an assessment should take place periodically and will inform the local authorities if their actions are going in the right direction or if adjustments need to be made.




In conclusion, our office looks forward to continuing to collaborate with the Fundamental Rights Agency, with local and regional authorities and with civil society to advance human rights where it matters most: in people’s daily lives. Thank you.




[1] See : http://pdhre.org/projects/development.html

[2] https://humanrightscities.net/what-we-do/