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Human Rights Cities: local governments promoting and defending human rights in the city

Worldwide local governments gather in the framework of our Committee in order to share points of view and experiences on their commitment to defend human rights at the level of their city, village or territory. For some, this notion refers to policies of non-discrimination, while others may focus on promoting historical memory and education as a way to build a robust local democracy, or to explore topics such as migrations, housing or culture through specific human rights lens. Despite these differences, they all tend to share several basic features, which is their commitment to put human rights principles at the core of local governance by establishing strong cooperation mechanisms with local civil society and citizens. At the global level, acting as a network, they have not only been able strengthen their own policymaking capacities, but also to become a global advocate for human rights and the right to the city

Our Committee has supported the worldwide human rights cities movement throughout more than a decade, by providing a space where to exchange practices and learn from each other, as well as to articulate shared messages and defend a common political agenda. Thanks to the support of its member-local governments, the Committee has promoted the following projects related to human rights cities.

Promoting charters for human rights in the city

The Committee promotes the adoption, implementation and monitoring of two different charters for human rights in the city: the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City and the Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City. Both documents spring from different historical and political processes, yet share a similar reasoning: offering concrete guidelines for local governments interested in promoting and protecting human rights in the city.

International advocacy: local governments are key to promote and defend human rights

On the basis of its members' commitment, the Committee has become a platform for advocacy at the international level. The main goal in the process is to advance the recognition of local governments as key actors in the promotion and the protection of human rights. Advocacy efforts in this regard have focused in the process opened by the UN Human Rights Council after the report “Role of local government in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Organizing international meetings and forums of human rights cities

The Committee supports local governments willing to provide a space exchange between worldwide human rights cities, be it in small formats or larger ones. These seminars offer the possibility to value local initiatives, and to enter in global conversations with like-minded local authorities. In the last years, the Committee has facilitated meetings of human rights cities and has been involved in the organization of World Human Rights Cities Forums.

Facilitating a human rights monitoring programme

Local governments are able to assess the situation of human rights in their city through a monitoring programme faciltated by the Committee. A pilot initiative was launched in Bogotá in 2016, resulting in the publication of “The Rights approach through the Bogotá Humana development plan: Towards a new construction of the public sphere”.

Progressive public attention towards the role that local governments play in the promotion of human rights emerged throughout the nineties after the first wave of human rights cities. A landmark event in this regard was the drafting process of the European Charter for Safeguarding Human Rights in the City, which showcased the commitment of European municipalities towards human rights and called for “a stronger political acknowledgement as key actors in safeguarding human rights”. Initiated in Barcelona in 1998, the Charter was finally adopted in Saint-Denis in 2000.

"The commitment which we undertake concerns all people of today. It does not claim to be exhaustive and the breadth of its application depends on how far the citizens make it their own. It is merely an outline response to the aspirations of those citizens, aspirations which arose in the cities. This Charter contains a set of points which will enable all citizens to access their rights, and local government, at the subsidiary level, to facilitate their delivery and to recognize and put an end to any violations of those rights"

European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City

The movement of human rights cities took ground in Asia by the same time, as civil society organizations were about to launch in Gwangju the Asia Human Rights Charter (1998). Initially endeavored by civil society, Asian local governments progressively engaged with its spirit and the document has already been embraced by Asian networks of human rights cities. Both charters would highlight the increasing role of local actors in promoting human rights as a way to reinforce local democracy and the place of human rights in the city in an increasingly urbanized world.

The concrete link between human rights and the right to the city would take special ground in Latin America. Back in 2001, Brazil’s “City Statue” pioneered a renewed framework for guaranteeing the “social function of the city”. Mexico City promoted a Charter for the Right to the City to guarantee the full exercise of human rights in the city. North-American cities also carried out specific efforts in this regard, as it is the case of Montréal and its Charter of Rights and Responsibilites (2006) or San Francisco's rights-based gender strategy.

"The Montréal Charter is rooted in the values of human dignity, justice, peace, equality, transparency and democracy. These values are shared by Montrealers and constitute the underpinning of those fundamental human rights (...) The Charter uses an innovative approach to establish the principles of both rights and responsibilities. It is for all intents and purposes a social contract that calls for the concrete commitment of Montréal"

Montréal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities

From 2010’ onwards, the movement of human rights cities entered into a second phase. Gwangju pioneered the establishment of a human rights municipal system in South Korea (2009). In Latin America, Bogotá promoted a Development Plan based on the promotion of human rights and Mexico City approved a new constitution strongly influenced by the rights approach. All around Europe, cities such as Barcelona, MadridGraz or Utrecht established mechanisms to guarantee human rights and monitor their responsibilities under international human rights standards.

After 2011, our Committee promoted the Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City. Approved by the UCLG World Council of Florence, this Charter was the result of a five-year process which involved local officials, human rights experts and civil society representatives. In perspective, the Charter represented a great advance for the human rights cities movement, as it was the first global document to provide a concrete action plan for supporting local governments in their promotion and defence of human rights in the city.  

"The Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City aims to promote and strengthen the human rights of all inhabitants of all cities in the world. All Charter-Agenda provisions apply to all inhabitants, individually and collectively, without discrimination. For purposes of this Charter, all inhabitants are citizens without distinction"

Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City

In parallel to these advances, international solidarity and collective action not only led to a deepening of policy exchange, but also for the United Nations to increasingly recognize the role of local governments in the promotion and the protection of human rights. On one hand, successive World Human Rights Cities Forums (such as the one of Gwangju and Nantes) have been instrumental for strengthening the global network of human rights cities. On the other, specific progress has been made in the last years in terms of recognition by the UN.