Cities: the new guardians of human rights

Residents of Detroit rally against municipal water

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.

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”. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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 ColombianEgyptian, and Indian courts have also upheld aspects of the right
to adequate housing in cases involving the actions of local governments.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

* Original source