To celebrate International Human Rights Day today on 10th December, the ETC Graz’s Wanda Tiefenbacher and Maddalena Vivona speak about the New Urban Agenda, local human rights, and how communities can come together to make human rights a real and “lived” experience.

In last week’s Blog, Barbara Oomen highlighted the role of municipalities in implementing human rights locally. Indeed, human rights obligations have their origin in international law, and are represented and understood as obligations of states towards their inhabitants. It is however only when focusing on people’s everyday life that we can see human rights in action and determine whether they have been achieved. It is for example when you realize the importance of living in the “right” part of the city to ensure your children will receive a good primary education, that you can get a sense about how important local authorities are in delivering human rights. But who is responsible for human rights in practice? An authority that is often overlooked is local governments, who are in fact administrative unit closest to citizens. In local elections for example, people can make choices about issues that affect them directly: accommodation, public transport, social benefits, educational services, etc.

After many successful years of expanding human rights obligations on a legal basis, the international human rights order is now struggling to ensure compliance of these same obligations at the national level. It is not only an academic shift that must take place to realize human rights are not only international, but also the many levels of authorities within a country must take into account their human rights obligations. The UN’s New Urban Agenda, which “sets a new global standard for sustainable urban development, and will help us rethink how we plan, manage and live in cities”, has now highlighted the role of local authorities. Local governments in their field of competences are rendered directly responsible to ensure that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled locally. Again, this does not only happen with mere recognition on paper, but must be felt by citizens directly. Processes of becoming a human rights conscious city for example, by publicly committing to being or becoming one, as it is the case of the Human Rights Cities, is an elaborate process and encompasses the re-structuring of many administrative processes, social services, and attitudes and behaviors of local stakeholders.

Local authorities have understood that human rights are not merely obligations that need to be complied with. Rather, communities in which human rights are protected, respected and fulfilled are also communities in which, as depicted by Accardo, Grimheden and Starl[1], citizens come to feel better about their community, strengthen a sense of belonging to this same community, and therefore reduce the potential of conflict within it. This in turn opens new ways of creative thinking and innovation within the community.

It is indeed at the local level that creative solutions become possible without rigid bureaucratic structures and disconnect between communities. A positive example is implemented in the Netherlands. Registering with a Dutch municipality is the first and necessary step to access a series of other services: without registration, it is not possible to acquire a social security number, open a bank account, enter employment, etc. To lighten the burden of registration, the Municipality of Westland, which has a high percentage of EU movers, collaborates with a number of employers and organises group registrations at the employer’s premises, held after work in the evenings. The pro-active and needs-based approach of the Municipality of Westland is a first step into ensuring that EU movers can become part of the Westland’s community. This is not to say the Netherlands are at the forefront of providing for human rights challenges on the whole – however, this example shows that local authorities have the resources and authority to influence parts of daily life not accessible to national governments, who often lack knowledge of communities, local customs, networks, etc.

Countless innovative examples exist in nations and communities across Europe. Most recently the ETC together with partners published a Toolkit for Equality for local authorities, on successfully implementing human rights standards in their administrative processes. The renewed interest in various levels of decision-making in human rights is becoming evident on the international and on the EU level, for example through the work of the Council of Europe’s Congress for Local and Regional Authorities, the European Coalition of Cities against Racism (ECCAR), and countless NGO and private initiatives. However, the local implementation of human rights is not a one-way street: citizens themselves must have the information and an enabling environment to become pro-active themselves. Measures which can further citizen activism include comprehensive information campaigns, citizen councils, official agencies that deal with human rights violations (like local Ombudspersons), and the public proclamation of adhering to the values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It must become a new “normal” for people to talk about, know about, and care about their human rights. The local level is the first level, and arguably one of the most effective levels, to make this change happen and to help a state to fulfill its international obligations.

[1] A. Accardo, J. Grimheden and K. Starl, ‘The Case for Human Rights at the Local Level: More Than an Obligation?’, in European Yearbook on Human Rights (2012).

Maddalena Vivona & Wanda Tiefenbacher
ETC Graz – European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy