Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 29 - September 2023 عربى
Terminology Corner
Rights of the City

Local authorities and local governments, by definition, bear both authority and obligations to respect, protect and fulfill all human rights at the local level, as do other actors, as “organs of society” (UDHR preamble). The treaty-bound obligation arises from the territorial state’s ratification of ICESCR, among other international instruments. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has observed that violations of inhabitants’ human rights can occur through the direct action or failure to act (omission) by states, or through their institutions or agencies at the national and local levels.


It is not habitual to speak of the “human rights” of public bodies and authorities vis-à-vis citizens and other inhabitants in their jurisdiction. These public persons and entities primarily bear human economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) obligations.


In general, the legal “rights” of states and state institutions apply more appropriately vis-à-vis other states. Amid the clearly emerging obligations that local authorities and institutions of human settlements generally bear toward their inhabitants, those same human rights treaty-bound actors bear certain rights as well. The above concepts advance particularly the collective sense and identity of the city within the treaty-bound state.

Rights derive from cities and other local administration and government functions as organic components of the territorial state in which they operate. In order for the city—or other human settlement institution and authority—to live up to its increasingly defined and codified duties, it bears a corresponding right to central government coordination and support, without discrimination on the basis of geography, political affiliation, demography or other arbitrary basis.

Within the over-riding human rights implementation principle of “maximum of available resources,” local authorities have rights to their fair share of the national budget and assets in the pursuit of ESCR. The rights extend to benefit from the central state’s implementation of the other over-riding principles for implementing the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: i.e., self-determination, gender equality, rule of law, progressive realization and international cooperation.

This calls on the state variously to enable representative local government to succeed in upholding shared-but-differentiated human rights treaty obligations. This may call for greater financial, technical, policy-coordination and capacity-building support to such local government. Otherwise, the city or other human settlement may fall to the mercy of private and external financial markets, for example, and/or compelled to privatize public goods and services in order to fulfill inhabitants’ right to the city.

Moreover, collectively self-expressing cities and other human settlements could assert a (human) right to local self-determination consistent with the right to the city. This can—and does—manifest in the moderation of local self-interest and global human rights principles to: ensure the adequate function of city-region food systems, apply procurement policies for sustainable local development, and/or determine the level of participation of noncitizens in local decision making. The Covenant’s over-riding “international cooperation” principle and its articulation in the European Charter’s “international relations” reference above open a sea of debate. Some municipalities are adopting resolutions, commitments and declarations to apply general principles of international law in their contracting and procurement practices, in support of global human rights.

For the city or other human settlement to exercise its rights, an enabling constitutional, legal and institutional context is indispensable. Such is the organic relationship between the local and the national system, ensuring the balance among subsidiarity, local decision making and the “rights of the city” within the human rights state in its integrity.


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