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Professor Tara Melish, SUNY Buffalo Law School, introduced the human rights cities movement as giving local definition and embodiment to human rights. Examples of human rights cities since 1997 include Rosario in Argentina, and cities in South Korea, Ghana, Austria, Canada, and the US - including Washington D.C. She argues that the concept of human rights cities give exposure to ‘human rights framing’, based on proactive and participatory governance.
Dr. Emily Murase, San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, explained that some ‘human rights’ cities were born out of civil society (dis)engagement with the UN (such as Rosario in Argentina). Others (several US cities) were driven by local advocacy campaigns using human rights to reframe particular issues. She went on to give snapshots of action through ‘human rights cities’. Many are making aspirational commitment to human rights principles (e.g. Seattle, 2012, passed a resolution stating that laws of the city should respect a full range of international human rights law). Wisconsin used this for housing and to address racial discrimination in housing, which was used as a jumping off point to increase government for affordable housing. In San Francisco and Los Angeles there are ordinances in various cities to implement CEDAW, to advance gender equity and hold government accountable. In Montreal and South Korea laws were used to set up an ombudsman and establish human rights training internally in city government. They do not, however, include a right to legal action.
More generally, a human right cities approach seeks to:
· Build consultation on human rights in law and policy in the city to address specific issues.
· Generate local action plans to address rights.
· Encourage participatory governance and participatory budgeting.
Though this dialogue is only in the initial stages of development, the hope is that it will offer widespread accessible means at the local level to counter the more dominant and increasingly ‘anti-rights’ narrative.
Murase spoke of the possibilities of applying a CEDAW analysis to workforce, services and budgets to identify gender issues. She has undertaken a gender analysis for ten city departments and attempted to apply a gender analysis of positions of influence. She believes that; "Once you start counting it, things start to happen." She also commented that she believed the cities for CEDAW campaigns had particular significance given that the US is not party to CEDAW. When asked to comment on how her work influences the enforcement of the CEDAW, she responded that; "When we do an audit and find that, for example, more money is given to homeless men than to homeless woman. We can use publicity and advocacy to shame them into change."
William Bell, Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama spoke from his experience of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. He recalled that the Montgomery bus boycott started simply out of need for people to be treated how they needed to be treated and from that a process of sit-ins and other demonstrations naturally followed. He also recalled that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was asked to come to Birmingham, and that started the Children’s March Movement. (It was a children's march because the adults were working and did not want to lose their jobs.) Bell recalled being one of those children and being taken by his grandmother to Newfound Church to hear Dr. King speak. He continued; "Later that year Dr. King was arrested and wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham jail. He had been told to wait for racial equality, and in that letter he eloquently explained why he could not wait."
As president of Birmingham City Council, Bell was asked to join Americans for South Africa movement that sought to boycott any company that traded with South Africa. He explained that in Birmingham ordinances were passed to say that no Birmingham based company would do business with South Africa. In 1993, Bell was invited to Atlanta where Nelson Mandela came to thank everyone who had worked for his freedom. Mandela told that one of the things that gave him inspiration when incarcerated in Robben Island was the progress in Alabama and Mandela believed that if Birmingham in the deep South could change, South Africa could change. Bell recounted that change is possible and the fact that a little boy like him was able to become the Mayor of Alabama stands as testament to that: “Good men and women came together to change society to enable a boy like me become mayor. It took not just black men and women, it also took white men and women and Muslim men and women.”
Bell continued that there is much work still to be done in the US, - not only on issues of race, but also indigenous rights issues, problems with gangs, human trafficking and sex slavery. As Mayor he is working to make Alabama a ‘human rights city’. He was invited to attend UN discussions on the UN Covenant on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). As part of CERD, each county must establish a centre to document human rights issues in their country but the US had not set up that centre. As Mayor, due to Birmingham Alabama’s history, he felt the centre should be set up there: "Change can happen."
Kirsteen Shields is a Lecturer at the University of Dundee School of Law and co-Chair of the ASIL Human Rights Interest Group.