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Building the ‘city of rights’: The human rights policy of Barcelona

Barcelona
Spain

 

The policy implements human rights locally and aims to turn Barcelona into a ‘city of rights’. Both international human rights and the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City (ECHRC) provide the human rights language and framework of the policy. Funding for the policy comes from the municipal budget. Although the objective of becoming a city of rights arguably concerns the entire local government, the main institution concerned with implementation is the Civil Rights Department (RDC) of the municipality, within which different bodies operate: 1) the Office for Non-Discrimination (OND), which mainly processes complaints of discrimination through mediation; 2) the Office for Religious Affairs (OAR), which promotes the religious freedom of the city’s religious communities in their relationship with the local administration and population; 3) the Council for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT Council), which is an advisory body composed of NGOs, collectives, and other informal groups concerned with LGBT issues (recently, a plan for the mainstreaming of LGBT rights has also been promoted by the RDC); and 4) the Human Rights Observatory, which has to check the status of human rights in the city. In addition to the RDC, the Síndic(a) de Greuges de Barcelona (the city’s ombudsperson) performs functions of control on the local administration that, especially considering the independent status of this institutions, provides a crucial support to the safeguarding of human rights at the city level.

The human rights policy of Barcelona has succeeded in many respects. The RDC has spread the word of human rights both inside and outside the local administration. Intervention in the area of LGBT rights has been particularly visible and strong. Services like the OND and the OAR have provided two important operative arms for the human rights policy: these bodies, in collaboration with other city and regional bodies, have contributed to the fights against discrimination, supporting the rights of women and other minorities and vulnerable groups, and the integration of religious communities in the city. In many cases, mainly relying through mediation, they have reached practical and useful results (including in the ‘hard’ case of migrant rights). Participation of local NGOs, groups, and individuals in the different policies has been a key element of the human rights policy, including the entire area of LGBT rights; the collaboration between the OND, OAR, and local NGOs and groups; and in other specific instances (i.e., the consultation process related to the Barcelona’s draft of the ECHRC).

However, there is room for improvement. Human rights are still largely an issue for the RDC and not for the city population and the local government in a broad sense. The human rights approach envisaged in statements like the ECHRC has not been fully formalized and, to some extent, realized. There is also evidence that competing agendas oriented more to security and local growth may hinder the implementation of human rights. Efforts to safeguard human rights are also limited by market-driven dynamics of systemic discrimination in the city, and by the legal constraints imposed by state citizenship and legislation (including the immigration law). Any adaptation of the policy in another city should consider both its achievements and limits in Barcelona. The policy should aim at diffusing human rights across City departments while, at the same time, providing for ad hoc services. As a start, a local human rights framework and a set of institutions tasked with implementation should be defined, both connected to the local reality of human rights and any relevant issues. The open participation of civil society actors should characterize the policy. The entire local government and the mayor should openly support the policy. At the implementation level, obvious constraints and challenges imposed by (systemic) discrimination in the city markets and state legislation should be taken into account and, as far as possible, minimized by defining relationships with local and supra-local public and private (including economic) actors which increase the local government’s capacity to deal with human rights.