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A Movement of Human Rights Cities for Climate Action and Sustainable Development

STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Cities need to ensure that all can partake in the fruits of pandemic recovery, and this requires a human rights approach.
  • While Europe is home to most Human Rights Cities in the world today, the movement is spreading in Asia.
  • To support the integration of human rights-based approaches at the local level, RWI is producing a handbook for city authorities to guide implementation of human rights standards and the SDGs in the Asia Pacific.


By Windi Arini, Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s Regional Asia Pacific Programme, and Delia Paul, Monash University


This past month saw two important decisions on human rights and the environment. One was the recognition of the human right to a healthy environment by the Human Rights Council. The other was the Council’s agreement to appoint a Special Rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change. Both decisions highlight the international community’s increasing recognition that a healthy environment is crucial for the fulfilment of human rights commitments and the 2030 Agenda’s pledge to “leave no one behind.”


International human rights instruments impose obligations for states. Although the fulfilment of human rights is the state’s legal responsibility, other actors at local, national, regional and international levels play an essential role in ensuring human rights fulfilment. As the international human rights system evolves, there is increasing emphasis on the role of cities and local government authorities. The 2015 Final Report of the Human Rights Advisory Committee on the role of local government in the promotion and protection of human rights (A/HRC/30/49) emphasized this. Local governments are close to local communities; they are in a strategic position to address a range of human rights issues, such as health and the right to a healthy environment.


Human Rights in the Pandemic


During the pandemic, many city authorities became frontline responders—managing food distribution, organizing testing stations, and enabling the large-scale burials and cremations that were needed. Some have consciously embraced a human rights approach as the best way to ensure an effective local response.


City authorities at the 8th Asia-Pacific Congress of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG-ASPAC) shared some of these experiences at an event on 7 September 2021, organized by UCLG and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (RWI).


  • In Baguio City, Philippines, the city authority integrates human rights in policy formulation, planning, and programming, emphasizing the importance of vulnerable groups. It also uses a human rights-based indicator system. During the pandemic, the city surpassed the testing average, and has set an ambitious target of vaccinating 95% of residents.
  • In the southern city of Birgunj, Nepal, bordering the Indian state of Bihar, many residents were cut off from access to basic amenities when the city went into lockdown. The city authorities set a target that no one should lack food, and undertook 45 days of relief distribution. They also made household deliveries of oxygen to COVID-19 patients, to reduce the load on the city’s hospitals. 
  • In Nagpur, India, to tackle rampant profiteering, the city authority introduced a single-vendor system for sales of remdesivir, a drug used to treat COVID-19 patients.


In each case, city authorities had deliberately applied human rights principles, which has enabled them to respond to COVID-19 impacts as they are shaped by social inequality. Their commitment to “localizing” human rights will be crucial to the post-pandemic recovery, as the groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic – such as  women, persons with disabilities, migrants, and other marginalized groups – are the focus of targeted recovery efforts.


Human Rights Cities


The above cities have put into practice the idea that sparked the Human Rights Cities movement. Human Rights Cities seek to align their policies and programs with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights conventions and standards. Initially a European network, Human Rights Cities are spreading in Asia through the work of organizations such as RWI and UCLG-ASPAC.


One notable Human Rights City in Asia is Gwangju, Republic of Korea. Gwangju’s journey to become a Human Rights City arose from its struggle for democracy under repressive governments in the 1980s. In later years, the city council enacted human rights ordinances pertaining to the rights of immigrants and persons with disabilities. The city established a human rights department in 2010.


In the same week of the Human Rights Council’s historic decisions on human rights and the environment, the City of Gwangju hosted the annual World Human Rights Cities Forum (WHRCF), from 7-10 October 2021. WHRCF has convened annually since 2011 and has become an important platform for strengthening ties among the different actors promoting the Human Rights City movement.


During the 2021 Forum, RWI co-organized an event with UCLG-ASPAC and the City of Gwangju presenting the projects and action plans developed by participants of an RWI course on ‘Localizing Human Rights and the SDGs for Inclusive Recovery and Resilience.’ Participants’ projects showed ways that local innovation and “localization” of human rights can be instrumental in the quest to leave no one behind.


Five of the most promising projects—all developed by women from the Philippines—were presented at the open event on 9 October. These human rights localization projects included:


  • a human rights review of a disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) plan;
  • the inclusion of persons with disabilities in DRRM;
  • the development of a Voluntary Local Review tool for cities in the Philippines, which provides a self-administered questionnaire for local governments to evaluate educational initiatives from a rights-based perspective, to help monitor SDG 4;
  • a study of the work burden among indigenous women; and
  • a review of a COVID-19 rehabilitation and recovery plan from the perspective of those most in need.


One of these projects, for example, reviewed the city authority’s practice, which had identified children and the elderly as ‘vulnerable’ groups in need of special attention. This project identified other under-served groups that were particularly affected by the pandemic, including informal settlers without land titles; healthcare frontline personnel; prisoners; informal settler families; and LGBTQ youth. In the case of LGBTQ youth, the project found that the pandemic-related lockdowns had denied this community of safe spaces to meet and connect with others, and that recent suicides had been recorded. The project led to a specific recommendation to establish a city-based monitoring and evaluation team to ensure ‘no one left behind’ in the pandemic recovery efforts.


While Europe is home to most Human Rights Cities in the world today, the movement is spreading in Asia. Political instability and a sometimes negative view of human rights may hamper the movement in the region, but the Philippines projects show that individuals have been able to initiate action to integrate human rights into local policies.


Human Rights for Climate Action


The HRC’s recognition of the right to a healthy environment, and the need for a Special Rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change, comes at a pivotal moment as urban life gradually returns to pre-pandemic activity levels. Cities will need to ensure that all can partake in the fruits of pandemic recovery—yet climate change impacts make this a challenging endeavor.


The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of how planetary stresses place direct strain on local government services and exacerbate the deeply-rooted inequality in many cities of the developing world. Cities in Asia will continue to experience the pressures of rural-urban displacement, hotter temperatures, sea-level rise, and extreme weather events. These challenges are best navigated through human rights-based approaches that empower public participation, resulting in better public services, more inclusive societies, and more sustainable and resilient cities.


Another event during the WHRCF spoke to this situation. At a session co-hosted by the ASEAN Youth Forum and RWI, youth representatives from South and Southeast Asia presented recommendations to local governments for tackling the climate crisis. South Asian youth called on local government authorities to implement meaningful youth engagement that includes investing in young people’s capacities, agency, and leadership, eliminating structural barriers that limit youth participation, and supporting policy frameworks for formal youth engagement, mechanisms for youth dialogues and youth-led accountability initiatives.


Doing this will be new territory for many local government authorities. To support the integration of human rights-based approaches at the local level, RWI is producing a handbook for city authorities to guide implementation of human rights standards and the SDGs in the Asia Pacific.


Ten years after the world adopted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said that rights must be rooted in “the world of the individual person”—in their neighborhood, school, or college; in their factory, farm or office. She stated: “Such are the places where every man, woman and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”


By 2050, two-thirds of the world population will live in urban areas. For most people, cities and towns are “the world of the individual person” that Eleanor Roosevelt spoke of. The role of city authorities will be crucial in ensuring that human rights have meaning in our post-pandemic, rapidly warming world.


Windi Arini is a program officer for Inclusive Societies at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s Regional Asia Pacific Programme, based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Delia Paul is a human geography researcher at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and a consultant on communication for sustainable development.


Video credits: World Human Rights Cities Forum; Youth for Peace International; visualogic.gr 


This article have been published also in IISD : SDG Knowledge Hub website.