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Cities: the new guardians of human rights

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In monitoring the human rights performance of states, the UN human rights mechanisms engage mostly with central government. Too often, the role of municipal authorities is overlooked despite the crucial role they play in realizing housing and many other rights. FrançaisEspañol

Leilani Farha
9 March 2015

In October 2014, at the invitation of civil society organisations, I visited Detroit with the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation. We met with people whose water had been shut off, and with many others struggling to pay expensive bills to avoid losing their water supply. Emerging from bankruptcy and still heavily indebted, the city of Detroit stopped providing water to people who couldn’t pay their bills.

The right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and to adequate housing are enshrined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Detroit visit underscored for me the importance of local governments in protecting these rights. But how often are city authorities actually brought into human rights discussions? And how can these local governments be made more accountable when they ignore rights? In a report presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva this month, I examine these questions.

In the last few decades, some initiatives began to engage local, municipal governments on the right to housing, in particular through the concepts of the 'human rights city', and 'the right to the city'. In the last few decades, some initiatives began to engage local, municipal governments on the right to housing, in particular through the concepts of the “human rights city”, and “the right to the city”. These efforts come out of recognition that local governments have critical responsibilities, not only in preventing forced evictions, but also to take positive steps to realize the right to adequate housing: infrastructure development, land-use planning, upgrading of slums, and so on.

There have been some positive advances in this arena. Seoul, for example, declared itself a human rights city in 2012, and has since adopted housing rights measures. Brazil’s City Statute Law demonstrates the importance of shifting urban design to focus on people, with local governments playing a central role. In the US several cities have developed innovative human rights practices in the area of housing. Madison, Wisconsin has adopted a resolution requiring the city to adequately fund a ‘responsive housing strategy’ that ensures adequate housing for those in need.  And Detroit itself has a City Charter that includes a chapter on human rights and is being used to support litigation challenging the water shut-offs.  But in many other cities, similar efforts are a long way off.

Yet, the general trend worldwide since the 1990s has been the decentralization of responsibilities to local governments, especially with respect to housing. Decentralization has been promoted on the basis of “subsidiarity”, which asserts that public responsibilities should be exercised by the elected authorities that are closest to the people. In regards to housing, decentralization has been encouraged as a way to enhance participatory democracy, transparency and to allow for local innovation. However, this process has often focused on economic and political efforts, excluding human rights in the discussion. When this happens, there is no way to ensure that the right to adequate housing is embedded in the way policies and programmes are delegated.

At the same time, local governments are often hampered from implementing human rights by lack of resources, knowledge, and know-how. National governments rarely see it as their role to ensure local governments have the capacity to implement human rights obligations.  Ultimately, it’s the most vulnerable who suffer the consequences, including: slum dwellers, homeless people, people with disabilities, migrants, minority groups, and others.

But international human rights mechanisms haven’t always been much better at engaging the key responsibilities of subnational bodies like cities, instead choosing to mostly address the national level government. Indeed, subnational governments are often not even made aware of the conclusions or recommendations the treaty body or other human rights mechanisms make that could be essential for their own actions. Although the mandate on the right to adequate housing receives many allegations complaining about the actions of subnational governments, it’s unclear whether states consult local authorities prior to responding.

Though difficult, we must find ways to better include subnational level governments in the international system that monitors human rights compliance. Some countries do engage local authorities in the Universal Periodic Review process and the Special Rapporteurs and other procedures established by the UN Human Rights Council can, and sometimes do engage directly with subnational governments in their regular activities.  

At the national level, domestic courts are playing an increasingly important role in clarifying the obligations of subnational governments. For example, in the well-known Grootbroom case, the Constitutional Court of South Africa recognized that local governments also have obligations to progressively realize the right to adequate housing. The Colombian, Egyptian, and Indian courts have also upheld aspects of the right to adequate housing in cases involving the actions of local governments.

But if the right to adequate housing is going to take hold, more needs to be done to encourage and support local and other subnational governments to engage human rights.

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Flickr/uusc4all (Some rights reserved)

Residents of Detroit rally against municipal water shutoffs.


International human rights bodies have a number of opportunities to reinforce the human rights obligations of different levels of government. Recommendations and their implications need to be communicated to local and subnational governments, with requests for responses and follow-up action. They must ensure that decentralization in relation to housing is guided and informed by human rights, in particular the right to adequate housing.

National level governments should guarantee access to justice and effective remedies for violations of the right to adequate housing at the local as well as the national level. They should also ensure subnational governments have the resources and the capacity to meet their human rights responsibilities which could prevent municipalities from taking decisions that are contrary to the right to adequate housing.

At the municipal level, cities should consider adopting charters that explicitly guarantee the right to adequate housing and related rights. Additionally, civil society and community organizations, as well as human rights institutions, could establish better links between international, national and local initiatives to monitor the implementation of the right to adequate housing. These combined efforts would ensure that the obligations of local and sub-national governments feature prominently in submissions to human rights bodies.

In the end, putting economic and social rights into treaties and national laws only makes sense if the bodies actually enforcing the action—in this case subnational and municipal governments—have the information and resources to do so, and can be held to account when they don’t.

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