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In Seoul, a municipal government division works to mainstream the rights approach in local public action

Last September, after the 7th edition of the World Human Rights Cities Forum, the UCLG Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy and Human Rights met with the Human Rights Division of the Metropolitan Government of Seoul. Our aim was to learn more on the initiatives undertaken by South Korea’s capital to mainstream the rights approach into its own local public action. This was also a good opportunity to strengthen the involvement of Seoul in the network of local governments of the Committee, since its access as full member last 2017.

"Guiding the Metropolitan Government to become a human rights-oriented city"

The Human Rights Division of the Metropolitan Government of Seoul was established in 2012, following a municipal ordinance that assessed the city's responsibilities in terms of human rights and established the constitution of its members and its own functioning. This initiative was carried out following the steps of the movement of South Korean human rights cities, of which the city of Gwangju (co-president of our Committee) has been a pioneer during the last decades. The movement already counts with several municipal commissions extended all over the country.

The main goal of the Division is "to guide the Metropolitan Government of Seoul to become a human rights-oriented city". In this sense, and in order to protect and promote the human rights of all its inhabitants, the Division reviews and takes part in the development of the main public policies of the city. Among its main achievements, the human rights system of Seoul has already established a Human Rights Action Plan, promoted a follow-up on the implementation, fostered the establishment of educational programs for local public officers (until 2016, the training had reached more than 40,000 officers) and drafted multiple recommendations to the city Mayor.

Institutionalizing and mainstreaming

The Human Rights Action Plan of the Metropolitan Government of Seoul focuses on five main objectives: the improvement of human rights’ guarantee of minorities, the relationship between Human Rights and urban habitat (housing), the dissemination of human rights culture and values, the establishment of a system of protection and mainstreaming of rights and a deepened cooperation with civil society. Among its guiding principles, closely related with the "human rights approach" as defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Gwangju’s Guiding Principles for a Human Rights City, it can be found citizen participation, responsibility, fight against discrimination, training and empowerment of local civil society and confluence with international human rights standards.

The Cities for Rights Movement is on the rise

After establishing its Action Plan, the city has proceeded to institutionalize its system of human rights protection, mainstreaming Rights within the whole of local public action. In this regard, and although the Human Rights Division has been responsible for mainstreaming this approach according to Seoul’s Action Plan, it should also be noted how the establishment of specific thematic Commissions has been key to add further experience, civil society engagement and follow-up to these initiatives, acting as a mechanism to ensure rights guarantee and enforceability.

This is the case of the Commission for Human Rights Violations, which counts with 3 Ombudsmen charged with defending citizens against possible rights violations. As noted by technicians from the Human Rights Division, these violations refer mainly to issues of discrimination, sexual harassment or violation of privacy. On the other hand, the municipality has also established a civil Human Rights Commission, formed by Seoul citizens representing local civil society, and who has the capacity to advise and influence the action of the Division and the municipality, as well as to address the office of the Metropolitan Mayor.

In this regard, it should also be noted how Seoul’s approach actively incorporates citizen participation among its main premises, either through the composition of its institutions, its direct interaction with civil society organizations, the establishment of participatory monitoring mechanisms on the follow-up of Plan or on human rights violations or by the promotion of a human rights culture. A remarkable example of citizen participation is that of the Citizen Jury, made up of 150 delegated citizens and 50 experts, which competences to assess cases with great social impact (between 2014 and 2016, this jury met up to 6 times).

Human rights cities network

After presenting its Action Plan, the representatives of the Division were interested in knowing more about the work done by worldwide local governments within the framework of the UCLG Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy and Human Rights. The Committee was represented by the Coordinator of its Secretariat, Magali Fricaudet, who mentioned the Global Charter for Human Rights in the City, the World Human Rights Cities Forum of Gwangju and the local public action monitoring program in the light of human rights protection "On the Road to Rights".

In this regard, it should also be noted how, given the consolidation of Seoul’s system for human rights protection, the city has been assuming a growing role in the global human rights cities network. Representatives of the Human Rights Division have frequently attended the World Human Rights Cities Forum of Gwangju and the municipality organized an international conference on the subject in 2016.