Interview #HumanRights75: our co-president Linda Voortman, Co-Mayor of Utrecht, flags the human rights cities movement to contribute to the Global Goals

As part of the Human Rights 75 initiative to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, we interview our Co-President Linda Voortman, Co-Mayor of Utrecht, about her work to ensure "Social Protection, Sustainable Development and the Right to Development," the September thematic spotlight defined by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

Why do you promote ‘social protection, sustainable development and the right to development’ in your city?

At the local level, we, as cities, first and foremost, strive to organise a multitude of things as effectively as possible for our residents: access to employment, education, housing, healthcare, a healthy living environment, culture, and social security. Many cities aim to create equal opportunities for all residents in these areas, for both the young and the elderly, for newcomers and for those who have been living in our city for decades. As local communities and cities, we inherently work towards helping realise the right to an inclusive and sustainable existence for all people in our city.

However, in a globalised world thrown off balance, we are increasingly realising that cities cannot do this alone; we are part of a development where inequalities are growing, and sustainable development has become a crucial daily challenge. Changes are happening rapidly, and yet we, as humans, are both the cause and the potential solution to the problem. Therefore, it is our duty and responsibility to chart a new course, not only locally but also internationally and inter-urban. We cannot wait for international agreements to be translated top-down; it is precisely from our local practices and experiences that we learn the need to connect locally to new global perspectives, new practices, and sustainable actions.

Human rights and the sustainable development goals can inspire local collaboration among residents, organisations, businesses, and the municipality. Especially in cases where national governments and multinational corporations do not adapt their policies and actions, local alternatives can make a crucial contribution to maintaining hope and perspective. Urgency, however, compels us to assert the right to local development - the right to the city  - and to demonstrate how we – supported by city cooperation, can collectively put new forms of equality, inclusion, diversity, and sustainable development into practice. This is how we communicate back to the international stages, networks, and institutions. Only through the mutual interaction between local and global can a sustainable and inclusive agenda take shape and substance.

Which are the initiatives the City of Utrecht is supporting to promote social protection, sustainable development and the right to development?

As a city, Utrecht has developed numerous local alternatives to common practices over the past decades. Utrecht became one of the cycling capitals and successfully created new neighbourhoods without space for private cars. In terms of social policies, many inclusive measures were implemented, such as those aimed at people living in poverty, and the traditional reception of refugees was transformed into new facilities that also benefited the surrounding community. Through a wide range of projects and programs in which the municipality of Utrecht could take the lead, we realised that we were part of a global movement of cities with similar ambitions. We knew that we needed to join forces and support each other. We believed that it was crucial to use international human rights agreements as a starting point, as they encompass all these elements.

Therefore, in 2019, as Utrecht – an active member of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and the Committee for Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy, and Human Rights (CSIPDHR) – we launched a plan. During a conversation with Kate Gillmore as deputy high-commissioner, we proposed initiating a campaign, as our contribution to the Global Goals, which would aim to create a movement of human rights cities with 1000 cities instead of the current 100 within 10 years: the global campaign 10, 100, 1000 Human Rights Cities & Territories by 2030. And we discussed our desire, as organised cities, to set up this movement in collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

We also suggested that we should collectively work on establishing a clear international framework on the question of "how to become a human rights city?" as well as through the update process of the UCLG Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City. Indeed, the year 2022 marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption by UCLG of the Charter-Agenda, which is the first document to propose an international framework for the understanding and implementation of human rights in the city from the perspective of Local and Regional Governments. More than 10 years after its adoption, the deep global transformations and growing inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, UCLG and its CSIPDHR have kicked-off a participatory process to update the narrative, vision and content this milestone document, building on the achievements of the Global Campaign.

The great thing is that all three of these elements have since been set in motion. A resolution was passed in the World Human Rights Council granting OHCHR the mandate to work with cities on this initiative. We have also signed a cooperation agreement with the High Commissioner as part of UCLG. Secondly, at least at the European level, a framework for Human Rights cities has been developed by the Fundamental Rights Agency in consultation with cities and researchers. Thirdly, within the UCLG, we have been given the opportunity to launch a global campaign to create a movement of 1000 human rights cities within 10 years. As Utrecht, we are one of the leading forces behind this campaign.

Which kind of international cooperation would you aspire for a better promotion of social protection, sustainable development and the right to development?

Building upon the foundation of the "10, 100, 1000 Human Rights Cities and Territories by 2030," we are gearing up for an exciting journey in the coming years. Our aim is to amplify the voice of the human rights cities movement in our cities, in our dialogues with national governments, and within the international institutions. This movement will undergo professionalisation through collaborative agenda-setting with various stakeholders and it will take concrete steps to shape and substantiate the concept of human rights cities.

Through peer-to-peer training, we will empower cities to embrace human rights principles. We will establish human rights monitors and observatories to ensure accountability and transparency. Local human rights ambassadors will be appointed to champion these values at the community level. In the face of human rights violations, cities will extend mutual support, offering refuge to activists when needed.

Moreover, we are committed to broadening the use of human rights principles beyond a legal framework. We see them as a wellspring of inspiration, infusing dignity into policy design, urban planning, and public spaces. In essence, our vision for the future is locally grounded, but its reverberations will be felt on a global scale.

Together, we will shape a world where human rights are not just words on paper but are embedded in the very fabric of our cities, ensuring a more just, inclusive, and dignified future for all.