This year on today’s Human Rights Day, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly as a result of the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War – it remains as relevant as ever. Not only does it hold the record of being the most translated document in the Guinness book of world records, the Declaration further extends its influence into the far corners of the world and has acted as both guiding principle and inspiration for many frameworks and activities in place today. Human rights and the recognition of every person’s unalienable dignity are not only an ideal confined to paper. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously pointed out, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” With this statement, she reflects on the daily spaces and practices in and through which human rights come to light – and to life. In this post, we would like to show what possibilities lay in multi-stakeholder and multi-level cooperation, any why this is necessary to guarantee the fulfilment of human rights as a lived experience.

There are several noteworthy activities happening all over the world that begin where human rights reach people directly – at the local and regional levels. It is city and municipal administrations, which are closest to citizens and are well-equipped to render human rights a lived experience in their procedures and interactions with citizens. Human Rights Cities, for example, are “both a local community and a socio-political process in a local context where human rights play a key role as fundamental values and guiding principles”[1] – there are over 40 such cities worldwide, including Utrecht (Netherlands), Gwangju (South Korea), and York (United Kingdom). Human Rights Cities take on a commitment to respect, protect, fulfil and – vitally – promote social, economic and cultural rights and to emphasise on citizens’ capability to enjoy civil and political human rights. Soohoo (2015) points out that these cities expand what it means to implement human rights – governments are no longer only accountable for rights violations, but take an active role in developing methods and structures to infuse human rights into their day-to-day work of governance and service provision.[2]

In Austria, the city of Graz was the first in Europe to take on this commitment as Human Rights City in 2001.  It is particularly noteworthy that now, the Province of Styria wishes to follow in the footsteps of its capital city and the Human Rights Declaration of the City of Graz. The Declaration sets down the city’s commitment to stand up for, respect and take a stand for human rights in policy and practice. This includes establishing various organisations and forums and supporting efforts to make human rights visible through projects and initiatives. Successful examples of such endeavours on the city level include local election campaign monitoring, the establishment of an Anti-Discrimination Office, as well as publishing an annual human rights report. Today, the new Human Rights Report 2018 of the City of Graz was presented. For the 11th time in succession, the report identifies deficits and good practices in implementing human rights in the city together with concrete recommendations for various actors on how to respond to them. For the first time this year, surveys were conducted among district representatives in order to collect data at the most local level possible.

It is to be commended that local and regional governmental institutions work intensively with actors from civil society and academia to implement a multi-level, multi-actor human rights strategy. In fact, this is a unique strategy that has proven successful in city and regional administration, as well as in the work of civil society actors.

Innovative and practical approaches to rendering human rights a lived experience have sprung up in various locations around the world, both in Human Rights Cities and beyond. For example the UNESCO Category II Centro Internacional para la Promoción de los Derechos Humanos – CIPDH (International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights) works in close cooperation with the Latin American and Caribbean Coalition of Cities against Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia and recently launched the Handbook on “The SDGs and Cities: International Human Mobility”, which is a practical handbook for local governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. The handbook aims to provide strategies to local governments of the region for a democratic and respectful reception of migrants in the cities; in line with the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals. The creation of the handbook was supported by the UNESCO Regional Office for Science in Latin America and the Caribbean and aims to reflect the dynamism and actuality of the challenges that international human mobility imposes on cities, allowing local governments to anticipate ways of action and future action scenarios.

The many initiatives and cutting-edge approaches to multi-level and multi-stakeholder engagement in the field of human rights give reason to truly celebrate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. At the same time, there is a growing need for the commitment of multiple actors to combat the increasing international regression witnessed across the globe. Promising practices and initiatives like the ones mentioned above shed light on the necessity and obligation to take a stand for human rights in daily life, and to anchor a commitment to its principles in daily practices. It is vital that we take action to draw together such positive examples, to strengthen support for them, and to develop cutting-edge tools and knowledge to help further human rights – starting in small places close to home, as Eleanor Roosevelt said. Happy Human Rights Day 2018!

This blogpost is an adapted version of an article that appeared on the website of the International Centre for Human Rights on the Local and Regional Levels, hosted by the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (ETC-Graz). The newly founded Centre works towards the goals of Agenda 2030 and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) through research, capacity-building, international cooperation, and networking.

[1] Gwangju Declaration on Human Rights Cities, 16–17 May 2011 Gwangju, Republic of Korea

[2] Soohoo, Cynthia, Human Rights Cities: Challenges and Possibilities (May 28, 2015). Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities, Barbara Oomen, Martha F. Davis, Michele Grigolo, eds. (Cambridge University Press 2016).