What Are Human Rights Cities?

Human Rights CitiesThe United Nations Population Fund estimates that around 5 billion people globally will live in cities by 2030. According to the organization’s report, such rapid urbanization could strain resources, complicate resource distribution and potentially exacerbate inequities and poverty. Recently, a human-rights-based approach to municipal governance has been gaining traction in the form of “Human Rights Cities.” These are cities where the government fulfills the basic fundamental needs of every individual.

According to the Raoul Wallenberg Institute, “Human Rights Cities are cities where local government, local parliament, civil society, private sector and other stakeholders are committed to ensuring the use and application of international human rights standards.” This means safeguarding the economic and social rights even of those living at the margins of society and making individual well-being the central focus of municipal policies.

Human rights include, but are not limited to: “the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and the right to an adequate standard of living.” However, despite their universal importance, human rights are often violated or ignored, especially when it concerns those who suffer most from poverty and inequality. By placing human rights at the center of local governance and decision-making, Human Rights Cities aim to create more just, equitable and sustainable societies. Such cities seek to address the root causes of poverty and inequality by empowering individuals to claim and exercise their rights.

History of the Human Rights Cities Movement

The People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning (PDHRE) introduced the Human Rights Cities initiative in 1993, following the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in the same year. The aim was to mobilize communities to implement human rights principles at the local level, with a focus on mitigating poverty and improving standards of living, education and security for all. Early cities to adopt the approach included Rosario, Argentina (signed on in 1997) and Graz, Austria, which became the first European Human Rights City in 2001. Since then, cities including Vienna, Utrecht and Barcelona have followed suit.


With a population of about 1.2 million people, Rosario is the largest city in Central Argentina’s Santa Fe Province. It became the world’s first Human Rights City when some 100 citizens and leaders, representing the interests of women, children, indigenous peoples and other groups, gathered to sign a proclamation supporting a human-rights-based approach to governance. The city formed a Citizen’s Committee with representatives from all social sectors to identify local human rights violations and address their root causes. Community members worked together to devise solutions based on the principles of “transparency, participation, accountability, reciprocity and a commitment to eliminate poverty.”

Since signing the proclamation in 1997, Rosario has seen great success. Although the city comprises only about 3% of Argentina’s population, as of 2017, the province that it anchors contributed 10% to the national GDP. Rosario continues to grow as a major hub for industrial and agricultural exports, making a strong impact on the country’s economic health.


The capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, Barcelona adopted a Human Rights City approach in 2016. The city has implemented policies aimed at reducing poverty and promoting social inclusion, including measures to ensure access to affordable housing, healthcare and education. In just a short time, these efforts have significantly helped to reduce poverty and inequality. For instance, between 2017 and 2020, Barcelona’s poverty rate dropped from 23.8% to 21.7%. Furthermore, in 2019, Barcelona’s GDP increased by 2.3% and the larger Catalonia region’s per capita GDP exceeded the European Union average by 12%.


Utrecht adopted Human Rights City standards in 2010 with a vision of protecting its inhabitants’ basic socio-economic rights and improving their quality of life. In 2013, the city formed a Local Human Rights Coalition that brought together civic organizations, businesses, leaders and activists. The coalition has worked with communities to develop and implement policies aimed at protecting personal freedoms and children’s rights, improving health, reducing poverty and ending discrimination. With a per capita GDP of $38,000, Utrecht and its rights-based approach to municipal governance have had a notable social and economic impact while improving its citizens’ overall well-being.

Human Rights Cities’ Impact on Poverty

These successes demonstrate that a Human Rights City approach can significantly help reduce poverty and improve lives around the globe. Through inclusive governance, Human Rights Cities engage all members of the community in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. These cities strive to ensure that everyone has a say in how resources are allocated and how policies are implemented.

Human Rights Cities recognize that poverty is not just a lack of income, but also a lack of the fundamental resources and opportunities that people need to live a dignified life. Despite globally rising poverty rates, the trends suggest that Human Rights Cities can help reduce social and economic inequities, protect rights and resources for those who need them most and give all individuals and communities a fair chance to succeed.

Sustained efforts and collaborations between governments, civic organizations and communities indicate that there is hope for another world (a Human Rights World) that works for all.

Sarmad Wali Khan
Photo: Flickr