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Coming to a City Near You: Global Charter-Agenda for Human Rights in the City


by Jim Kelly

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

 At the end of January, the International Permanent Secretariat Human Rights and Local Governments (SPIDH) officially launched a period of open debate on the new Global Charter Agenda for Human Rights in the City. The Charter-Agenda poses significant threats to state sovereignty, as it assigns various state responsibilities to local governments, attempts to mandate the creation of local policies in order to achieve a more just and equal society, and expands the definitions of many human rights (for more information on the Charter-Agenda, please see the July 21st Global Governance Watch® post).

SPIDH is a French-based organization that works to promote the enforcement of human rights at the local level. Its institutional partners include the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, Amnesty International, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The programming for SPIDH is overseen by its Executive Board and its Scientific Committee, the membership of which includes several prominent individuals on the international scene, including Emmanuel Decaux of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee; Ryuichi Ida, former President of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee; Pierre Sané, UNESCO Deputy General Director for Social and Human Sciences; and Linos Sicilianos, member of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. SPIDH was given responsibility for the Charter-Agenda in 2002, and has been working with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), an organization of local authorities that seeks to make local governments influential players in the global governance movement, in its creation.

The Charter-Agenda has as its primary objective the promotion of human rights in cities. It seeks to not only empower citizens to claim their rights as inhabitants of cities, but also looks to create international solidarity between municipal authorities regarding the local enforcement of these rights.

The Charter-Agenda lists nine specific rights to which all city inhabitants are entitled and gives a “suggested action plan” for the implementation of each of these rights. The rights and suggested actions may have considerable global governance implications, because they attribute to local authorities responsibilities that are reserved for states under international law. For example, the Charter-Agenda claims that it is the responsibility of the city to promote the “exercise of all its inhabitants’ civil, political, collective and individual rights. “ It also asserts that the city, not the state, is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing to its inhabitants the rights contained within the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically, ensuring acceptable living conditions and mandatory education for all minors. Finally, the Charter-Agenda lists the city as the guarantor of such rights as “equal access to energy, potable water, [and] sanitation services, in adequate amounts and quality,” and states that the city must “takes measures to mitigate and relieve hunger.”

The Charter-Agenda also encroaches on the sovereignty of national governments by mandating actions that local governing bodies must take in order to ensure that the rights of their inhabitants are fulfilled. Specifically, the Charter-Agenda suggests that all municipal personnel should be required to take human rights training courses and that cities be obligated to undergo human rights “audits.” Furthermore, the Charter-Agenda requires cities to institute a “weapons collection service” in order to ensure the peace and safety of their inhabitants, provide universal Internet access to all of its inhabitants as a means of fulfilling the right to education, and institute a “sliding-scale” pricing system for water and energy services in order to ensure that all citizens have access to water and energy, and that wasting of such services is penalized.

Through its recommendations and obligations, the Charter-Agenda also attempts to expand the definition of existing rights and play an active role in identifying “emerging rights.” For example, in its definition of the right to peace and safety, the Charter-Agenda implies that all inhabitants have the right not only to physical safety, but also to an undefined “mental safety.” Under the auspices of the rights of children, the Charter-Agenda gives the city the responsibility of ensuring the vague “ethical development” of children. The right to basic public services is extended to include “transients and other nomadic populations” and according to the Charter-Agenda, the satisfactory fulfillment of the rights of participatory democracy will include universal suffrage of all city residents, “irrespective of their country of citizenship.”

The Charter-Agenda is open for debate throughout 2009 and will be presented for adoption by the UCLG at their next World Congress in March 2010. Once the text is adopted by the UCLG, individual cities from around the world will be encouraged to sign on to and implement the Charter-Agenda. Those cities that do adopt the Charter-Agenda will be required to establish an “expert group or independent commission on human rights” as well as a “consultation process” in order to ensure full implementation of the document. Thus, the global governance effects of the document are extensive; by attempting to assert the authority of local governments, the Charter-Agenda hopes to make cities viable players on the international scene, thereby bypassing national governments and usurping their sovereignty.

Jim Kelly is the President of Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, P.C., a public interest civil and human rights law firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. The opinions expressed herein are his own.