Hirschl Symposium: Encouraging human rights cities in Europe (and beyond): the “new EU framework”

In Ran Hirschl’s book, “Human rights cities” and “human rights cities movement” are described within “city self-emancipation initiatives” developed to enhance the constitutional relevance of cities in a context dominated by State (158, 162-164). “These developments”, he says, “embryonic as they are, may have significant symbolic, educational, and at times practical significance” (170). Definitely, they demonstrate the awareness some cities have about the role they can play in fundamental rights protection in modern society.


In this context, Europe offers an interesting perspective. In the European Union member states, in fact, three different systems of law intersect in the protection of fundamental rights (European Convention on Human rights, European Union law, and national constitutions) and shape the most elaborate and complex human rights regime in the world today. The idea is that this multilevel system provides the environment for the development of new practices or collaborations in the protection of human rights also at local levels.


Hirschl draws from Europe a significant example: the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City, adopted at Saint Denis in 2000 and later signed by more than 400 cities. It represents a product of the “political acknowledgment of cities’ importance in safeguarding human rights in a highly urbanized world” (159). The European Charter has influenced global developments by inspiring another municipal charter of human rights with a worldwide scope: the Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City, adopted by United Cities and Local Governments (CGLU) at Florence (Italy) on December 11, 2011.


More recently, from the Old Continent comes another very interesting attempt: the new Framework for Human Rights Cities in the EU, proposed October 11, 2021, during the Fundamental Rights Forum 2021, by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), together with representatives of several European cities. The document proposes a “framework for becoming, and functioning as, a human rights city in the European Union” through three elements: foundations (formal city’s commitments to respect human rights), structures (mechanisms and procedures to help integrate and implement human rights into daily city work) and tools (methods and resources to support human rights-based approach work) for “majors, local administrations and grassroots organizations to reinforce fundamental rights locally”. It is based “on existing good practice and expert input by representatives of European human rights cities, EU institutions, academic experts, international organisations, civil society and city networks” with the aim “to encourage more cities in the EU to become human rights cities, and to help develop a local culture of rights”.


Three aspects of the report are worth highlighting:


  • First, the role of cities in the protection of human rights in Europe, as it emerges from many selected good practices reported, among them the Barcelona innovative methodology guide “City of human rights: the Barcelona model”; the formal city declarations adopted by Graz, Vienna, Nuremberg; the human rights advisory council of Graz e Malmö; the human rights office of Nuremberg e Vienna; the anti-discrimination office of Barcelona, Graz, Valencia, Salzburg and Nuremberg; the office to support to victims of discrimination and crime in Bologna, Turin and Heidelberg; the human rights based approach in artificial intelligence in Amsterdam and Helsinki; the action plan of Bruxelles and Lund; and the communication campaign of Barcelona and Bologna. These examples illustrate how cities are increasingly aware of the need to protect human rights through policies and services for local communities. This awareness has deepened during the pandemic, when many European cities experienced innovative ways to use public spaces, provide public services and local service delivery, support business and economic recovery, and offer targeted measures to protect vulnerable groups (migrants, elderly, children).


  • ·Second, the networks that have been developed on this theme, involving actors from supranational, subnational, civil society and cities organizations. This networking capacity has always been a characteristic of European cities, since ancient time, and has continued to develop through cities associations, meetings, and common initiatives. An interesting example in human rights is The Pact of Free Cities formed in late 2019 by Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. The Pact has a huge symbolic value when considering the situation of East European Countries toward EU rule of law and fundamental right standards. Of course, cities’ association can play a crucial role in promoting and supporting this networking activities. The Eurocities’ initiative ‘Inclusive Cities for All: Social Rights in My City’, that has been joined by nearly 30 cities, represent a very good example.

  • Third, the attention of the European Union in supporting cities effort in the protection of human rights. Even if the role and powers of cities are established by member states through domestic law, the EU have played an important role in highlighting the role of cities within the European integration process (through policies, programs, or institutional involvement). In the last decade there has been proposals and discussions on this theme that has involved EU institutions, city networks and associations, member states, and has passed through many soft law instruments. Gradually this debate has stimulated policies at local levels and new consideration for cities at member states and European level. The EU framework is the most recent attempt by the EU in this direction, as it is declared at the end of the document: the aim to “mobilise EU institutions and Member States to support and create incentives to help more cities to commit to fundamental rights and the human rights city approach”, and “to foster a discussion between cities and other actors at EU and national levels towards developing a dedicated label and accreditation process for human rights cities in the EU


These aims were also behind the four sections dedicated to human rights cities during the Fundamental Rights Forum that took place the October 11-12 2021 in Vienna. In one of this section, the Committee on social inclusion, participatory democracy and human rights of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) has presented the work carried out to strengthen the global movement of human rights cities, as the updating process of the Global Charter Agenda of human rights in the city, that this year celebrate its 10th Anniversary. This example, once more time, confirm the important role of European experience in human rights cities and the mutual influence between European and global developments on this theme.