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What is a Human Rights City?

For the last decade we have seen more and more cities actively declaring themselves "human rights cities". This to underscore their ambitions to align all their work with international human rights standards.

The concept has existed for decades but there is to date not one commonly accepted framework or criteria for accreditation. There is, however, what could be described as a growing movement with global and regional initiatives, to define criteria that are relevant and adaptable to different contexts. The initiatve to become a human rights city can come both from an elected mayor (top down approach) and from civil society (bottom up approach).

Generally, it means that local governments adopt the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as guiding norms of governance - and that they have declared that they are committed to following these when governing the city. This commitment is often based on an agreement between local government, local parliament, civil society, the private sector, and other stakeholders to make sure that the city applies international human rights standards.

In practice it often initially translates into work with a focus on specific rights areas. Some cities choose to focus more on external  activities, participation and outreach, while others focus more on internal initiatives and capacity development. The ultimate purpose is to develop a holistic and systematic approach and that the political committment remains.

Why cities decide to declare themselves Human Rights Cities

Common motivations for cities that publicly declare themselves human rights cities are that their city becomes a place (and actor) that:

  • Locally fights authoritarianism and populism.
  • Does more for its’ citizens to become a more human-centered and oriented city.
  • Offers a counterweight to new public management and makes sure to consider various perspectives before making important local decisions affecting citizens.
  • Sees the declaration as a way to strengthen the city brand and become more attractive.

Cities from all around the world have taken steps into becoming human rights cities. Examples are York, United Kingdom; Eugene, United States; Jakarta, Indonesia; Barcelona, Spain; Rosario, Argentina; Gwangju, South Korea; and Lund, Sweden. The first city ever to become a human rights city was Rosario in Argentina. In Sweden, the city of Lund was the first one to proclaim itself as a human rights city in 2018 and it was soon followed by Piteå in 2020.

How we work with Human Rights Cities

While there is no exclusive definition yet, the Gwangju Guiding Principles on Human rights cities offers some concrete insight of what a Human Rights City really is. RWI has since 2015 been actively involved and in the forefront of the movement for Human Rights Cities.

Internationally we partner with key actors such as the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), OHCHR, UNESCO, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and various human rights cities to contribute to the development of capacity building tools, guidelines and frameworks that are relevant and adaptable to different contexts.

We are members of the international steering committee of the WHRCF since 2016 and we support the UCLG campaign to motivate more cities around the world to become Human Rights Cities

At the national level we have collaborated with SALAR (Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions) to create a knowledge platform on how to integrate human rights at the local level, including on what it would entail to be a Human Rights City in the Swedish context.

Over the years we have also produced several research reports and thematic publications mainly targeting local authorities and other relevant local stakeholders in Sweden and globally.  Special initiatives with human rights cities in Turkey have resulted in a publication on indicators for the Turkish context.

Steps towards shared frameworks for human rights cities:

Learn more:

A short history of Human Rights Cities

Video: In this video, RWI Director Morten Kjaerum explains what a Human Rights City is. This video answers questions such as: What are human rights cities? How did they come about? How do you become a human rights city?

How We Can Help

At RWI, we are committed to advancing the human rights city project in Sweden and as well as worldwide. We combine research with practice to provide academic expertise to the needs and priorities of practitioners, as well as to inform our research based on lessons learned.

Such knowledge exchanges have already resulted in a publication on the Swedish and international perspectives on human rights cities and regions, as well as a platform that lays out criteria for how to develop and perform as a human rights city in Sweden, which we developed together with the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. 

As of now, the city of Lund, where the RWI headquarters is situated, is Sweden’s first Human Rights City.  

Among other things, we help make pre-studies, carry out trainings and in other ways help build capacity in cities, to help cities move towards becoming human rights cities.

Help Your City Become a Human Rights City

Would you like to learn more about what it takes for a city to become a Human Rights City?

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