Human rights city concept fosters cooperation of local actors which commit to upholding human and fundamental rights in and through their work within their local communities. This term comprises not only cities, but also other forms of local and regional government, including towns, municipalities, counties, provinces or regions – local and regional communities which contribute to the respect and promotion of human rights through measures aimed at delivering human rights standards and developing rights-based policies on a wide variety of issues.
A lot of the day-to-day human rights work takes place at local level – for example, regional and local governments are often responsible for delivering public services or managing public space, social care or education, or in relation to participation in public affairs and cultural, social and economic life, as well as through citizen dialogues. Even though local and regional authorities are already addressing many human rights related challenges by developing initiatives to fight discrimination or support inclusion, the sectoral policies that address initiatives at local level are often not explicitly linked to human and fundamental rights obligations.
Hence, the human rights city concept explicitly links such activities to human and fundamental rights obligations. Since the initiative started in Rosario (Argentina) in 1997, the concept has been adopted by many more local authorities worldwide, including several European cities. In the EU, the human rights city concept has been adopted in cities such as Graz, Salzburg, and Vienna (Austria), Turin (Italy), Middelburg and Utrecht (Netherlands), Barcelona and Valencia (Spain), and Lund (Sweden), while additional EU cities are working towards a human rights city status.
Human Rights City Framework
Along with more cities aspiring to become human rights cities or expand their human and fundamental rights work, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) is currently working on promoting this concept in the European Union and, for this, has proposed a framework for becoming and functioning as one.
A human rights city is a title that cities and different administrative areas can claim for themselves. Human rights cities explicitly tie their actions to corresponding human rights obligations and in order to fulfill them, they work together with local, including grassroot organizations, businesses and city residents.
The proposed Human Rights City framework is divided into three categories:
- Foundations: Commitments to rights and principles
The foundation is a human rights city’s declared commitment to fundamental and human rights. This includes a commitment to international human rights instruments, the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and international monitoring mechanisms.
- Structures: Mechanisms and procedures to integrate human rights into practice
Mechanisms to implement human rights in practice include a responsible unit, participatory bodies, and an ombuds institution established to assist the citizens and engage all stakeholders like youth groups, businesses and vulnerable groups in this initiative. Moreover, authorities should report annually on their human rights work, and partnerships with National Human Rights Institutions should be built on a national, European, and international level.
- Tools: Methods and resources to support the structures and human rights work
Lastly, human rights cities need to implement methods and resources to support the aforementioned structures. A human rights-based approach should be chosen, which explicitly identifies people as right holders, redresses discrimination, empowers, fosters participation, raises accountability and transparency in city operations, and promotes diversity and respect. Moreover, human rights should be mainstreamed, meaning that they should be included in all governmental activities rather than focusing on one department only. To achieve that, capacity building and human rights training should be introduced for all relevant actors. A local action plan on human rights could help to plan, monitor, and evaluate policies. To reach everybody with these policies, awareness should be raised and rights should be communicated.
It is essential to understand the framework as a living document, which should be reviewed and customized based on circumstances and the capacities of local authorities. Regardless, becoming a human rights city holds much potential. With it, cities work toward fulfilling their legal obligation to respect, protect, promote, and fulfill human rights. Measures enhance public trust and civil society support, create a more inclusive city, and ensure that everybody’s rights are protected, especially those of vulnerable groups.
Potential of Croatian Cities To Become Human Rights Cities
When it comes to Croatia, there is currently no human rights city as such. Still, some initiatives go in this direction. For example, the Association of Croatian Cities stressed the vital role of local authorities in protecting fundamental rights and implementing the EU Charter. Moreover, Zagreb has pledged to uphold social rights as part of the Eurocities initiative ‘Inclusive Cities for All: Social Rights in My City’, thus building a foundation according to the framework.
Furthermore, Zagreb has worked together with several non-governmental actors like associations, the University of Zagreb and businesses to found an app that fosters access to buildings, streets and public transport for people with disabilities. It is also part of the Pact of Free Cities, which cooperates and pools resources on several issues to promote democracy, pluralism, and cultural diversity. Additionally, cities of Zagreb and Rijeka are involved in the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum, which supports members in exchanging information about human rights and the human rights city initiative.
Cities who have ambition and aim to integrate a human rights based approach to their governing process may find FRA’s “Guide to support local authorities in making human rights part of people’s daily life” helpful in this process. This guide can help cities to improve their efforts to respect human rights, if the cities are willing to go the extra mile for it. Even though the engagement of the cities is completely voluntary, the generic nature of the guide makes it adaptable to the local context which may encourage learning on human and fundamental rights and initiating the process of becoming a human rights city. Good practices of other Human Rights Cities or examples and tips on how to be more conscious of the universal values and human rights may encourage more European cities to join this initiative.
European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Cities in the EU – A Framework For Reinforcing Rights Locally (2021)
European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Human Rights Cities in the European Union – A Guide To Support Local Authorities in Making Human Rights Part of People’s Daily Life (2022)
Photo: ZoomInfo Blog