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Think globally, act locally - for human rights

Strasbourg 02/03/2009
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The struggle for human rights is also a local affair. Authorities at local or regional level take key decisions on education, housing, health care, social services and policing – areas extremely relevant for people’s human rights. These decision-makers should apply European and international human rights standards when they formulate their policies and ensure that their approach is rights-based.

While governments and national parliaments ratify international treaties on behalf of the state, the day-to-day work of implementing human rights standards often rests on the shoulders of local and regional authorities. They too are bound by these agreements.

Promoting and protecting human rights at the local level is of crucial importance. Local and regional authorities are often directly responsible for services related to health care, education, housing, water supply, environment, policing and also, in many cases, taxation. These matters affect people’s human rights, not least their social rights.

The geographical and personal proximity between inhabitants and local decision-makers has obvious advantages. Local decision-makers are more accessible and they are aware of the latest human rights needs and challenges in their area.

Dialogue with inhabitants and non-governmental groups can be more direct and inclusive at the local level. Municipalities and provinces with an activist approach to human rights have learnt that much is to be gained from treating persons as “holders of rights” instead of merely trying to meet their needs.

But this requires some active awareness-raising by local leaders. It is essential to ensure that individuals have an understanding of their rights and those of others.

During my visits to Council of Europe member states, I always try to meet with those who work at the local and regional level.  I have been impressed by the commitment and creativity of many.

In Austria, provincial governments have human rights co-ordinators who function as the authorities’ network in this field. This network is used, for example, when submissions to international human rights monitoring mechanisms are prepared. An interesting initiative was developed by the City of Graz which established a human rights council at the local level, which means that city regulations and activities can be scrutinised from the perspective of human rights.

I learnt of good initiatives undertaken at the local level in Italy, such as those in Bologna, where social inclusion projects have been developed and access to decision-making facilitated, or Naples, where housing projects have been started, even though a lack of funds blocked the works. Other successful experiences were carried out in that country, in particular through local networks which facilitated the integration of asylum-seekers, refugees and foreign pupils.  

Mayors in some cities across Europe have volunteered in co-operation with UNICEF to act as special protectors of children’s rights. The Human Rights Cities Programme, a non-governmental initiative which has been supported by UN-HABITAT has inspired local councils in some cities to address human rights issues in a comprehensive and participatory manner.

In 2007, twenty majors from different European countries joined together to appeal to their peers to ensure freedom of assembly and association for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups in those countries where such rights had been denied or restricted.

Unfortunately, I have also seen some examples of xenophobia and lack of understanding at the local level, particularly when it comes to the needs of disadvantaged groups.

This is a shame, because  local governance, based on human rights, has proven to be effective in tackling discrimination and social exclusion . Indeed, there are many local projects carried out by municipalities across Europe which improve the living conditions of disadvantaged groups, for example Roma, migrants and refugees, and empower them to exercise their human rights.

In October 2008, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe organised a seminar in Stockholm on local work for the implementation of human rights. It highlighted the importance of awareness raising campaigns, local action plans, the establishment of local or regional ombudsmen, the monitoring of human rights implementation, and  training local politicians and staff of authorities about their human rights responsibilities. This provides an excellent agenda for further work.  

  • Municipalities and regional authorities are encouraged to develop their own action plans. These local plans are more tailored to their specific needs, resources and priorities. A number of local agencies in various European countries have already developed sector-based action plans, for example, to protect children’s rights, promote gender equality or to build a society that is also accessible to persons with disabilities. Through coherent planning the local human rights situation can be regularly monitored and analysed. Problems as well as solutions are directly discussed with civil society, the public and other stakeholders. The experience gained at the local level can also contribute to human rights planning at the national level.
  • Ombudsmen and similar human rights institutions need to be well-known and easy to approach by all, and not just those living in the capital or major cities. Particularly in larger countries, this may call for the establishment of satellite offices of the National Ombudsman outside metropolitan areas. Another solution is to set up local or regional ombudsmen. Their geographical proximity to people makes them more available and accessible to those whose rights have been violated.
  • For public officials to identify and address human rights issues in their ordinary work, they must also benefit from human rights training themselves.
  • The human rights consequences of the widespread privatisation of provisions of education, health care or social services call for discussion. Though various service functions can be outsourced, the responsibility for the enforcement of the international standards cannot be delegated to the private sector. Consequently, a system of accountability within the respective agencies as well as monitoring the quality of the services has to be established.
  • The local budget is usually a good indicator of  commitment to human rights. Local politicians are often faced with the task of prioritising competing needs. Budget review from a human rights perspective is a tool for making elected representatives and officials informed of the consequences of their decisions.

The human rights approach at the local level empowers patients, pupils, the elderly, the homeless and others to claim their rights and, thereby, improve their situation. It is closely related to good governance. Local politicians and public officials should seize the opportunity to enhance the quality of life in their communities by implementing human rights in their ordinary work.

Thomas Hammarberg